State agencies to Bullock: COVID-19 won’t hinder wildfire suppression

The Roaring Lion fire near Hamilton in July 2016. (Inciweb)

The best wildfire is the one that never starts. But when they do start this summer, agencies around Montana are ready to fight them in spite of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, representatives of 10 agencies and organizations told Gov. Steve Bullock all they’ve done to prepare for firefighting during a season dominated by a pandemic. Several pointed out that firefighters train to manage risks such as rocky terrain or bad weather, and COVID-19 is just one more risk.

“COVID-19 overturns the apple cart on a lot of things, but it’s not insurmountable,” said Leanne Marten, U.S. Forest Service Region 1 forester.

One challenge is that resources may be more limited due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Firefighters often travel from other countries to help fight U.S. fires, but travel bans will hinder that. Even Canadian firefighters might not be able to easily cross the border as they did in 2017 when U.S. and Canadian crews bounced between fires in Glacier and Waterton Lakes national parks.

“Cross-border movement of people is going to be tricky,” said Mike DeGrosky, Department of Natural Resources Conservation Fire Protection Bureau chief. “We will be able to make it happen, but it’s probably going to take longer. We’re going to need to be proactive. If we think we’re going to need Canadian resources, we’re going to want to get out in front of that and move them sooner than later.”

Bullock said he’s been able to develop relationships with Canadian premiers on Montana’s border, so together they could probably get the ball rolling.

Interstate travel is now a little more difficult for fire crews. Plus, fewer may be available to deploy here because Montana tends to have a later fire season than other parts of the nation so they may be already committed to other fires.

“We could have some shortages, but we’ve always have shortages,” DeGrosky said. “We are very much focused on being as self-sufficient within the geographic area as we can be.”

The best way to stay self-sufficient and also limit the amount of time firefighters are exposed to each other is to keep fires small. That means fire crews from all agencies will be resurrecting the old USFS “10 a.m. policy” by jumping on every fire as soon as it starts.

“We are all committed to keeping fires small,” DeGrosky said. “I want to make it clear: we are not limited on our initial attack resources. We, the DNRC, have our normal complement of people and equipment. The Forest Service has stepped things up. The (Bureau of Land Management) is well prepared, Fish and Wildlife Service is prepared. We may be limited on out-of-area resources, but I think we’re in good shape from an initial attack standpoint.”

In many cases, that critical first action could fall to local and rural fire departments that are first on the scene, said Rich Cowger, Montana State Fire Chiefs Association president. Fire departments stand ready now, but Cowger was concerned that COVID-19 could affect volunteer recruitment and retention.

However, Lt. Col. Chad Roudebush of the Montana National Guard said he had several teams standing by to help out, especially since the pandemic kept one unit from deploying to Europe. The only thing the Guard doesn’t have is its Chinook helicopters because they did deploy. But the Illinois and Maryland National Guard has offered theirs if things get ugly in Montana.

And it could get ugly starting in July, said meteorologist Michael Richmond of the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.

“We’re forecast to possibly trend toward La Nina for summer and fall, and that is not a favorable pattern for Montana,” Richmond said. “All important is the July temperature with precipitation. How much warmer and drier than average will it be, and of course, are we going to have lightning?”

Climate change is making Montana’s summers warmer and drier, and since 2000, July is the month that has seen average temperatures increase the most.

Everyone remembers the 2017 fire season when lighting started the Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge fires after the region suffered a flash drought. If it weren’t for the cool spring, this year might resemble 2017 and 2007, the hottest and third hottest and driest summers in Montana, Richmond said.

Still, Montana has already had several fires, including the Lump Gulch Fire near Helena over the weekend. Other fires have sparked in eastern Montana due to dry conditions.

DNRC director John Tubbs said the Lump Gulch Fire took off through a thick stand of lodgepole pine because of the high winds and was able to burn 1,500 acres within four hours. About 150 firefighters responded as rapidly as they could, but they might have struggled more if the weather hadn’t turned, Tubbs said.

“We really had a full test of the fire response,” Tubbs said. “The tremendous amount of planning this spring that went into how to protect our firefighters from either getting COVID or spreading it was put to the test. I think the after-action review is going to be really helpful on what works and where we need to work harder.”

The main thing, Tubbs said, is to not allow COVID-19 prevention practices to distract crews from the dangerous work of fighting fires.

The second part of the summer isn’t looking good for conditions in western Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. If wildfire isn’t a direct threat, wildfire smoke drifting into Montana could be.

“If we don’t have ignitions, we won’t have the fires,” Richmond said. “But the fact we are trending toward that La Nina pattern and we already have dry fuels in portions of western Montana, we’re keeping it above-average for our fire potential in July, August and September for all areas west of the Divide and in southwest Montana east of the Divide. And we’re thinking of expanding that into central Montana.”

People start more than 60% of wildfires, so being more careful with campfires or anything that causes a spark could reduce the number of ignitions and result in a lot less work for firefighters. That’s especially important this year, said Sonya Germann, DNRC Forestry Division administrator.

“I want to implore the public to help us with the lift of fire prevention,” Germann said. “What we know is most of the fires are caused by human starts. This is a special season. We want the public to help us with that lift and have an investment in their fire crews, wanting to keep them healthy and keep these fires small.”

Bullock couldn’t agree more.

“Having gone through one time in my eight years of a century-plus record fire season, I hope we don’t go through that again,” Bullock said. “But I know the planning up-front and the good work you’re doing makes us prepared for a season like that.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.