Evaluating every wildfire

Forest Service ready to address 2022 fire season
Deb Hill
Wednesday, June 22, 2022
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Jamie Rennick and Maria Aaberge remove trees and shrubs as part of a DNRC fuel mitigation project. Projects like these may occur across thousands of acres of U.S. Forest Service lands, thanks to a new wildfire strategy and funding from the infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress. Photo courtesy of Don Pyrah

With only one large wildfire burning in Montana as of Monday, fire season is looking a lot better than it did in 2021. Last year at this time there were close to 10 large fires across the state; Monday it was just the Indian Creek fire in Madison County, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Interactive Wildland Fire Map.

However, at his annual fire briefing at the beginning of May, Governor Greg Gianforte was told the late summer fire season is expected to be difficult, once vegetation resulting from spring precipitation dries out. 

Gianforte called on state and federal agencies to commit to aggressively attacking all wildfires as soon as they are discovered.

“We do not have a ‘let it burn’ policy in Montana,” the Governor said, something he repeated at a community meeting in Denton June 7. 

A “let it burn” policy refers to the idea that fire is a natural part of some Western biomes, and that letting small wildfires burn helps reduce fuel loads and improves wildlife habitat. Recently, however, there have been objections to this concept. For example, the National Wildfire Institute argues that decades of wildfire suppression have led to catastrophic wildfires on federal lands.

In Denton the Governor told residents he was working with federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, to get them to agree with his “attack to extinguish” policy for all wildfires.


What is the Forest Service approach to wildfires?

The Forest Service, which manages more land in Montana than any other federal agency, about 17 million acres, is a key player in fire management. 

“We have a good working relationship with the state agencies,” said Dan Hottle, regional media specialist for the Forest Service’s northern region. “We are more in line with the state in our policy on fire management now.”

The “now” Hottle is referring is a result of the release of a 10-year Forest Service wildfire strategy in January. The “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests,” plan identifies key firesheds. Those are defined as areas of 250,000 acres or more in size, with a high likelihood of ignition that would place communities, infrastructure, watersheds, critical habitats and other values at risk.

One such fireshed, and the only one in Montana, is in the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana. The plan calls for implementation of large-scale thinning projects in these high-risk firesheds.

“We are paying today for decisions made 50 years ago,” Hottle said, referring to policies that have resulted in a dangerous buildup of fuels. “Our strategy moving forward is to treat landscapes across huge areas. If we can get the forest management treatments like the thinning work done, we can better manage forests than if they are overgrown. Right now too many forests are overgrown, leading to massive fires.”

Hottle said areas identified as high-risk firesheds will receive fuel reduction treatments paid for with the nearly $3 billion in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, with a goal of reducing the threat of catastrophic fire danger.

Each and every fire on Forest lands is prioritized based on factors such as location, cause, resource benefit and propensity to burn toward populated areas, Hottle said.

“We do not have a ‘let it burn’ policy in the Forest Service and we never have had,” Hottle said. “We are going to evaluate every fire.”


How the federal/state fire partnership works

Hottle said the agency works closely with DNRC on fighting Montana wildfires. Based in Lewistown, DNRC Fire Program Manager Don Pyrah agrees.

“It’s the ‘closest forces’ concept,” Pyrah explained. “The neighbor or stakeholder or agency closest to you with the equipment you need is who you go to.”

Pyrah said the Lewistown Interagency Dispatch Center reaches out to federal agencies as a matter of course when fires are called in.

“We all have mutual aid agreements so we can grab help from the nearest neighbor,” Pyrah said. “For example, on the West Wind Fire [in Denton] we ended up with resources from Missoula, Gallatin and Custer counties, and engines from the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.”

One complication, Pyrah noted, is that with fire seasons lasting well into the late fall and even winter, many federal agencies are hampered by loss of their seasonal firefighters, whose employment typically ends at the end of summer.

“The permanent full-time employees will respond, but there are fewer of them,” Pyrah said.

In all, Pyrah said the partnership between local fire companies, state resources and federal agencies works very well.

“When there’s a small fire, the local response takes care of it. If it’s larger, we reach out to the next level. If you are not involved in fire, you may not understand that it’s a fairly robust system of reaching out further and further to get what you need. It works really, really well for all of us,” he said.

“When it comes to fire, we have a good working relationship with the Montana DNRC,” Hottle said. “We are very good partners.”