“We Live With Fire,” Says U.S. Fire Service in Talks With Governor

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, June 25, 2020
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An abundant snowmelt for the state was a good start.Courtesy photos

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Even a lot of snow is not enough; there must be a slow melt and lower temperatures in spring.

By Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter

On Tuesday, June 16, Governor Steve Bullock held a media press call for most of the afternoon bringing together Federal, State, and local officials to give an update on the upcoming fire season. Bullock said, “I encourage vigilance.”
He noted that on Saturday, June 13, in the Helena area there was a large wind event and a fire started. Pursuant to the new policy, there was a heavy and immediate local response. Lodgepole pines were burning and heavy equipment along with 150 personnel responded. He admitted that despite the strong response, they did need the weather that cooperated in this instance. There was some evacuation of areas.
The State said as far as COVID-19 and firefighting are concerned, they are doing a multi-agency review after such early-season fires to see how the process worked.
Sonya Germann of the Montana Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) assured the Governor, “We are ready to respond and keep Montana safe.” Germann said regarding COVID-19, the Agency has inserted CDC guidelines and employed a lot of these: “One of the best ways to prevent a severe fire season is to improve forest health…There are 5.2 million total acres of federal and public lands in Montana.”
Germann is determined to assist local fire departments, “It doesn’t matter where the fire starts, the DNRC will be there to fight alongside our fire partners.”
The State will map out critical boundaries and develop a state-wide wildfire risk assessment for Montana. There are at least fifty ongoing projects to reduce fuels. Added to factors such as terrain and weather in determining the approach to a fire, COVID-19 has now been added as another factor.
There have been more fires occurring this spring than last year like the grass fires in January, which fire officials considered unusual. Already 401 fires have been reported this year with 16 fires currently going on (all coming under control) while the fire season is still a couple of weeks away. Authorities forecast that for the upcoming season they are keeping an eye on the northwest corner and the southwest corner of the State. State officials feel it is important for Montanans to know that of the hundreds of acres burned, 61% of fires in Montana have been caused by humans. Officials expressed confidence as they approach the fire season. They have hired personnel and trained them in innovative ways for pre-season readiness. Annual pilot training is being completed and they are fire-ready now. All compacts and agreements have been completed.
Michael Richmond, federal meteorologist, (gacc.nifc.gov) said that from 2000 we have had seven big fire seasons. Last year, however, was relatively quiet in the average number of fires and it was a relatively cool summer. The warmest season usually equals an active season, unless there is no lightning. This year the snowpacks were good, said Richmond, reaching 110% or more in many places.
Richmond is looking at July’s temperature, precipitation, and lightning. He predicts the southeast and the southwest will be warmer than normal. He said, “It seems like 2017 in that with the snowpack way above average it appears that west of the continental divide, June through September, will tend to be drier.” The Weather Underground concurs that July will be the fastest-warming month with a drop in the average July precipitation. This would be in line with La Nina tending towards drying fuels at this time. Richmond said “This effect may lend itself to a more active fire season affecting all areas southwest and west of the divide. It may extend to central Montana.”
Residents may see more smoke coming into the State from the west from California and Idaho. This would include an increasing trend of fine particulates. Chief Rich Cowger, Chair of Montana State Fire Chiefs Association says, “We’re ready the best we can (be).” All officials agree that the local government is the first line of defense together with State and Federal governments,
Cowger put out the call for help now, “People tend to volunteer when things are going good in their lives…We need volunteers now.”
Leeanne Marten, USFS Region 1 Leader, said, “As challenging as things are, it is also one of the most exciting times.” Marten noted that working across jurisdictions is “putting us where we need to be…” Adding “We live with fire.”