Because of air quality concerns, the U.S. Forest Service may have to get the approval of the state of Montana if it wants to monitor but not actively fight some wildfires.
An information officer for the Forest Services regional office in Missoula said the federal agency will continue with current wildfire policies, which includes contacting the state Department of Environmental Quality and seeking its input before the regional forester makes the final decision on how to proceed. The USFS has a burn permit issued through the DEQ air quality bureau.
We go through the normal procedure and the decision is made by the regional forester, said Cass Cairns, with the Forest Service aerial fire depot. He goes through a series of criteria, but before that final decision is made, they contact the DEQ.
She said a meeting is slated for Monday to further discuss and clarify the open burning restrictions, and refused to speculate as to what would happen if the Forest Services decision was opposed by the DEQ.
But the DEQ memo notes that failure to comply with its rules is a violation and may lead to formal enforcement.
At the center of the debate is a policy that allows the Forest Service to watch and monitor, rather than immediately extinguish, some lightning-caused blazes. Those monitored fires are known as Wildland Fire Use or WFU and most recently were employed locally on the Fool Creek fire, which started in early July in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area west of Choteau.
Since the fire was in a wilderness area and difficult to reach, the Forest Service decided to monitor the blaze rather than try to actively put it out right away. The theory is that these types of fires are natural tools that enhance the forests health.
The Fool Creek Fire is now at 42,000 acres, and along with about 30 other fires in Montana, as well as fires in Idaho, is pumping huge smoke plumes into the atmosphere, filling Treasure State skies with unhealthy air.
Under the memo issued Wednesday to major open burning permit holders, Wildland Fire Use no longer will be allowed until the air clears because of the poor air quality, said Bob Habeck, DEQ air program manager.
Instead, the Forest Service will need to use suppression tactics in all cases, unless it confers with the DEQ and a different course of action is agreed upon. Its up to the Forest Service, not the DEQ, to decide what suppression tactics will be used, Habeck added.
The agency took this action in response to the continuing deterioration of air quality thats been witnessed across the state, and in conjunction with concerns voiced by county health departments, Habeck said. We are witnessing coaches calling who are wondering if they can start practices and seeing increased hospital visits across Montana.
We want to protect public health as best we can, which is why this was issued.
He recalls that the last time the state took this action was in 2000.
The issue is somewhat a matter of semantics, since Habeck said the Forest Service can decide that it doesnt have resources to fight a wildfire, or its too dangerous to reach, and can allow the blaze to burn while monitoring it similar to what happens with a designated Wildland Fire Use. The difference is, it has to simply be called a wildfire.
If the objective is to put out a wildfire, but its too dangerous for firefighters or theres not any available resources, thats not our business, Habeck said. But if it is designated a Wildland Fire Use, where they are managing it for resource benefits, then it is our business because we are responsible for public health.
This Wildland Fire Use designation is being used increasingly this year. Some believe thats because the Forest Service has targets for the number of acres to be treated to reduce the severity of wildfires. That treatment often includes prescribed burns, which are set by the Forest Service in a relatively controlled manner in early spring, to rid areas of an overload of burnable material.
Because of the early onset of fire season this year, many of those prescribed burns couldnt take place, and the individual forests fell short of their targets.
In some instances WFU acres can be applied toward those treatment targets. But if a blaze isnt called a Wildland Fire Use, the acreage cant be applied, which may have contributed to the increase in this designation.
The open burning ban also covers prescribed burns in which fires are lit to consume fuel, like dead trees, before a forest burns out of control. However, it doesnt include tactics used to actually combat wildfires, like back burns.
Habeck said that most of the affected parties private companies like Plum Creek Timber, and federal agencies like the National Park Service were told of the restrictions on open burning and had no problem complying.
Dave Soleim, fire management officer for Glacier National Park, said on Thursday that the DEQs restriction on open burning shouldnt be an issue for the National Park Service.
He said that Glacier currently doesnt have any proposed prescribed burn projects, and are extinguishing any and all blazes as soon as theyre noticed because of the hot, dry conditions and lack of firefighting resources.
For us here in Glacier, we will take the appropriate response depending on where theyre at, the risk to firefighters and the values at risk, Soleim said.
Christine Tincher, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management in Montana, said the federal agency only received notice of the burning restrictions on Thursday, and isnt sure how it would affect agency activities. However, she added that theyre analyzing the decision and should know more about its impact today.