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Montana Fire Managers Say They're Ready For Season Complicated By COVID-19

Three men sit well-spaced around a u-shaped table. Squares of other participants on the Zoom call are visible at the top of the image.
Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock received an fire season outlook briefing from federal, state, tribal and local managers viz Zoom June 16, 2020.

Wildland fire managers told Governor Steve Bullock June 16 in a 2020 fire season briefing they’re ready for what could become an above average fire year made even more complicated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Mike Degrosky with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says even with 16 fires burning uncontained across Montana, fire season is still a few weeks away.

"It's important for Montanans to remember that a normal fire season means that hundreds of wildfires are going to burn hundreds of thousands of acres. That's going to cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars," Degrosky said during the briefing held via Zoom. "A normal fire season in Montana still means challenges and we encourage the state's citizens and visitors to be very vigilant and careful with fire."

Degrosky joined fire managers from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, State Fire Chiefs Association and others to brief Governor Steve Bullock about the 2020 fire season outlook.

Michael Richmond with the National Weather Service said Montana will likely see more fires and smoke-filled skies this year than last. He said a warm July is forecast, which will melt the above-average snowpack and raise the fire risk.

Richmond said climate patterns could cause smoke from fires in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Northern California to settle in northwestern Montana.

With the new threat of COVID-19, managers this year are upping their reliance on initial attack to keep blazes small and squelch the need to call in more firefighters. But Regional Forester Leanne Marten with the U.S. Forest Service says she’s aware they can’t catch them all.

"We will be doing the best we can to keep them small. But we understand that even with all things equal and everything going how we want it, just like this last week, variables line up. We're going to have some large fires," Marten said.

Agencies have staffed up and quarantined new hires. They’ve been trained in this year’s new “Module As One” approach, where small crews will segregate to limit the likelihood of transmitting illness. Managers say aerial and ground resources are in line with recent years, though resource sharing may take longer with COVID-19 precautions. The state has $55 million in its fire fund.

Rich Cowger with the Montana State Fire Chiefs Association says the virus also presents longer term concerns for the large swath of the state that relies on volunteer firefighters.

"People tend to volunteer when things are going very good in their lives, and with everything we’ve got going on in the world today, that may be far from some people," Cowger said.

Local crews are often the first to respond to new starts. Montana has seen more than 400 fires this year caused by humans and lightning strikes. Managers during the briefing said their goal is to keep fires small enough so they never get their own name.

Managers hope to learn from successes and challenges elsewhere to be prepared as they can be when the season hits in full. They're also hoping to trouble-shoot some issues early, like how to reintegrate Montana firefighters and equipment who are currently deployed out of state.

Degrowsky with the DNRC adds the key this year is self-sufficiency, meaning not calling in out-of-state or out-of-country firefighters to help shut down fires here.


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