Fire season on the horizon

By 
Deb Hill
News-Argus Managing Editor
Friday, June 5, 2020
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Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Ben Phillips works on postcards he mailed out this week to inform local residents about changes to the burn permit process. Permits are now available online.
Photo by Deb Hill

Although spring rains have turned most of Central Montana vivid green, other parts of the state are looking dry, causing Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Ben Phillips to already be thinking of fire season.
“Things are not as bad here as they were a couple of weeks ago, as we’ve had some good rain since then, Phillips said. “But north around Winifred and in other parts of the state, it’s looking like July already.”
Phillips said he recently took a trip up to the Winifred area and across the Hi Line, and was surprised by how dry it was.
“The hay fields up there took off and then dried out again,” Phillips said. “Winifred, Roy, the Breaks, it’s all looking very dry.”
While the National Interagency Fire Center is predicting a normal situation for large fires during July, August and September in Central Montana, Phillips said there is more to the story here locally.
“It looks like we are going to see above average temperatures and below average moisture this summer,” Phillips said. “Central Montana is very difficult to forecast, though. We can have wind in one area and be dead calm just a short distance away. That’s why we work with the local fire chiefs to determine burn days and non-burn days.”
But there are two other factors causing Phillips concern about this year’s fire season. Both are related to the impacts of COVID-19.

“Because of COVID, we haven’t had the manual thinning done in the Moccasins and Snowys that we expected,” Phillips said. “Last year we had 2,500 acres done by this time. This year? None.”
In addition, especially in the Snowys, Phillips said there are still slash piles from last year’s thinning and tree removal that need to be taken care of, or they will just become additional fire fuel.
Fuels are not the only issue – Phillips also worries about lack of training for firefighters.
“This spring we did not get fire training done as we had planned because of the COVID restrictions,” Phillips said. “Trainings are resuming for firefighters this weekend, but we had to cancel so many of the trainings we had scheduled. Since January all training has been online.”
Topics covered in fire trainings include how the incident command system works, fire fighting tactics, radio useage and communications.
“This is a big county with difficult conditions for communications,” Phillips said. “Communications can be critical in a fire situation. We have some new fire fighters and we need to get that training done.”

Burn permit website now live
Another critical piece of keeping county residents safe during fire season is when or whether to issue burn permits.
As Fergus County Fire Warden, Phillips has the responsibility and authority to shut down burning across the entire county if he feels conditions warrant it. On the other hand, local fire chiefs can shut down their own district to burning, even if Phillips has not.
“The fire chiefs are the authorities in their own areas,” Phillips said. “They can’t reopen areas that I’ve shut down, but they can shut down an area on their own. Just this morning [Wednesday], Lewistown Chief Joe Ward shut down burning in the City due to the wind.”
Those wanting to burn, whether a large field or just a barrel of trash, must have a burn permit, now available online. Phillips encourages those needing a permit to go to the state burn website, burnpermit.mt.gov. The website shows whether burning is permitted at the exact location where a fire is planned. It also shows where other burns are located across the county.
“The website just went live today,” Phillips said on Wednesday. “There’s a $5 fee for a permit good for the whole year, and those fees are used to pay for keeping the website up and, if there is any left over, for rural firefighters to have workers comp.”
Those who already had ordered burn permits in 2020 will receive a postcard from the DES office showing their permit number and the website address where they can activate it. Those holding paper permits are grandfathered in for the online permit service, and their data is already in the system, Phillips said.
The severity of the fire season affects local, regional and statewide fire resources. The Fergus Fire Council, made up of local fire chiefs and the Fire Warden, met last week to discuss the county’s situation.
“We’ve been lucky the past two years,” Phillips said. “Now we’ll just have to wait and see how conditions look for this year. There is a lot of fuel out there.”

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