Official: Fire season stretching resources thin

‘If you’re gonna ask me which resources we’re short on, I’d say everything’

By: - July 15, 2021 4:18 pm

GREENOUGH, MT – JUNE 14: Helmville, Montana volunteer fire department firefighter Dean Phillips (R) and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation firefighter Will Wood (L) tell their instructor Jesse Hauer (C) how they will attack a fire during a live fire training at the Lubrecht Forest Camp June 14, 2007 in Greenough, Montana. In preparation for what is expected to be a busy fire season, Montana state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) held its annual week long Interagency Wildland Fire Engine Academy which prepares firefighters for the upcoming fire season with refresher courses in fire attack and fire strategy. Fire crews come from as far as Helena, Montana to participate in the training. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Montana’s firefighting resources are stretched thin as the state faces down a possibly historic fire season and some of the worst drought on record, state officials testified in a meeting of the Water Policy Interim Commission on Thursday.

The state, the rest of the Northern Rockies region and then the country as a whole entered fire Preparedness Level 5 earlier in the week, signaling a large number of major fires across the landscape with the potential to exhaust firefighting assets.

“Nationally, we do not have enough resources to fight the fire on the landscape throughout the country,” Sonya Germann, the Forestry Division administrator with Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told the bipartisan committee Thursday. “Even though we’re the first priority in the nation, we’re not getting all the resources that we need to fight fire on the landscape in the state of Montana and the Northern Rockies.

“If you’re gonna ask me which resources we’re short on, I’d say everything,” she said.

Fire has burned over 140,000 acres in Montana this year, racking up a $3 million fire suppression tab in July alone so far. As the state closes out the fiscal year, it will have spent around $20 million in fire suppression funds in total, leaving around $100 million, Germann said.

“We’re gonna need a lot of that,” she said.

There are intense blazes throughout the region, especially in smokey western Montana and the Idaho panhandle. Drought has the West in a vice-grip, with the majority of Montana counties designated as drought disaster areas, all while temperatures are climbing. More than 90 percent of Montana faced abnormally dry conditions up to extreme drought by the end of June.

And climate change makes fires easier to start and tougher to keep small — with one 2016 study concluding that half of observed increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s are anthropogenic in origin, meaning that climate change has “approximately doubled the western U.S. forest fire area beyond that expected from natural climate variability alone during 1984–2015,” the study says.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a statewide wildland fire emergency on Wednesday, giving Montana access to resources from the National Guard and activating a mutual aid agreement with other states.

To understand why we are where we are today, you have to go to last fall,” said DNRC Water Planning Section supervisor Michael Downey at Thursday’s meeting. “We didn’t have September rains last year. Come the middle of October, nearly all the state was in some form of drought or abnormally dry.”

A dry fall led into a dry, warm winter, with a snowpack that didn’t set in at medium and low elevations, Downey said. June, typically one of the state’s wettest months, was just parched, and in about a two-week period most of the snowpack had melted, he said.

“What’s a little bit scary is if you look around the West, we’re in better shape than pretty much everyone else — which is really an indication of how dire things are,” he said.

The breadth of the situation has created a high demand for firefighting resources, Kristin Sleeper, a fire information officer with DNRC, told the Daily Montanan.

“There’s already shortages of resources — Type 1 (hotshot) crews, Type 2 initial attack crews — all of those crews are in high demand given the fire activity on the landscape,” Sleeper said. “If a resource becomes available, it immediately gets taken up.”

The same can be said for Type 1 incident management teams, air tankers, helicopters and other aircraft, she said. DNRC collaborates across jurisdictional lines to allocate resources effectively, she said, and the emergency declaration can help “free up some of those pinch points,” but it still poses a challenge.

“We have been seeing requests go unfilled,” she said.

The blistering fire season has also underlined a crisis of low firefighter pay and poor retention nationwide, especially at the federal level.

This type of resource strain is part of what makes Preparedness Level 5 what it is. But Sleeper said Montana usually doesn’t get to that point until August.

“We’re a full month ahead of schedule in terms of the fire behavior and the level of activity,” she said.

And, she added, the state is “anticipating another bout of hotter and dryer conditions next week.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.