Great Falls, MT, USA — The Rocky Mountain Front’s Ahorn and Skyland fires, which firefighters fought from the beginning, racked up expense sheets of more than $16 million a piece.
Fool Creek, the third large fire on the Front this summer, which initially was allowed to burn in the wilderness under a policy called “fire use,” cost just under $6 million to fight.
The results were the same each grew to between 50,000 and 60,000 acres.
Forest Service experts say the similar outcomes despite the $10-million gap in suppression costs illustrate the futility and expense of trying to extinguish some of the large fires that are becoming the norm in tinder-dry forests across the West.
At the same time, they add that fire management can be just as effective with less risk and cost if they strategically pick their spots and manage blazes long term, as they did with Fool Creek.
Officials note that, in the future, the agency’s response to fires needs to acknowledge, as does the public, that a bigger policymaker is at work in today’s extreme fire environment.
“It’s Mother Nature’s ‘It’s gonna burn’ policy,” said Mike Munoz, the ranger in the Rocky Mountain Ranger District, playing off the so-called ‘let it burn’ policy that has drawn fire for decades.
In some quarters, the policy of wildland fire use allowing fire to burn in the wilderness for resource benefits is nothing more than warmed over let it burn.
“I think they should get on them fires sooner,” said 71-year-old Frank Morgan, who recalled watching a Six-Man football clash between Augusta and Heart Butte one day earlier this month in Augusta. Smoke from the Ahorn was visible in the mountains to the west.
Residents of Augusta still remember the 1988 lightning-caused fire in the Scapegoat Wilderness that was allowed to burn. The Canyon Creek fire ended up roaring out of the wilderness and onto private ranch land, scorching 250,000 acres and killing livestock.
This year’s fires torched landscape that many outfitters and lodges rely on to lure customers who don’t come to Montana to see charred tree trunks.
Forest Service officials say they’re still fighting fires early and aggressively.
The agency’s initial attack success rate this season in the region was 98 percent in the Northern Rockies Region, which includes northern Idaho, Montana and North Dakota.
Five of those fires were snuffed out on the Rocky Mountain Ranger District when they were still less than a tenth of an acre. The names of these obscure and short-lived blazes were Sugar Loaf, Ellis, Baldy Bear, Bear Creek and Burnt Creek.
“People don’t hear about that, they just hear about the larger ones we are unable to put out,” said George Weldon, acting director of fire, aviation and air quality for the Northern Rockies Region.
As for the Fool Creek fire, it was classified as fire use because it was burning in such dense timber that it couldn’t be safely reached by ground crews.
Other fires that did receive suppression resources were just too hot to handle.
Fire managers confidently announced July 14 that they had the Ahorn fire 60 percent contained at 170 acres. Then it sent flames 300 feet in the air and went on a big run. A helicopter working on the fire crashed and broke into pieces. Elite firefighters had to disengage and were forced to bushwhack their way out of the wilderness.
Munoz said it’s fortunate lives were not lost.
Had a wildland fire use approach been applied on Ahorn, “We would have used less equipment and put people at less risk,” he said.
The Skyland fire also raged, despite the amount of resources and equipment invested in that blaze.
“We essentially caught up to that when it was done,” Munoz said.
“These three fires are a classic example in my mind of how we can do things better,” he said. “But it’s going to take some public acceptance, too.”
Fires burning longer
These days, fires are burning longer, bigger and more dangerously, Forest Service officials say. Not every fire can be put out quickly, no matter how much money and manpower are thrown at them.
This year’s trio of large Front fires proves that point, they say.
“The fires have exceeded our operations capability,” said George Weldon, acting director of fire, aviation and air quality for the Forest Service’s Missoula-based Northern Rockies Region.
As of Saturday, the Ahorn fire 30 miles west of Augusta had reached 52,500 acres and was 20 percent contained, while the Fool Creek fire, 30 miles northwest of Choteau, had burned 60,000 acres and was 40 percent contained.
The Skyland fire southwest of East Glacier, meanwhile, was 75 percent contained and had scorched 45,760 acres.
Forest Service officials say they already are discussing ways to improve the effectiveness of fire response in the wake of the 2007 season, which has seen more than 630,000 acres of national forest burn in the Northern Rockies Region and produced a firefighting bill of more than $135 million.
“Should we take action that isn’t effective, costs millions but doesn’t control fire?” Munoz asked. “Or should we start recognizing there are places we take action?”
To date, the tab for the Skyland fire is $18 million while fighting the Ahorn fire has cost about $17 million. Firefighters and air resources were put on those fires from the beginning.
By comparison, the expense of the Fool Creek fire, which was not “initial attacked,” is $5.8 million to date. The status of that fire later was changed to suppression when it crossed the wilderness boundary onto the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
“We didn’t attempt to put Fool Creek out, but we couldn’t have,” Weldon said. “We tried to put Ahorn out, but we weren’t able to.”
Fuels extremely dry
The Front lit up this year on a scale that hasn’t been seen since 1910 or 1919, when millions of acres burned across Idaho and Montana.
The reason was extremely dry fuels, lack of moisture and Arizona-like temperatures.
To date, the Front’s three major fires, which continue to smolder, have burned a combined 158,000 acres, while more than 1 million acres has burned on all land Forest Service-managed and otherwise in Montana, Idaho and North Dakota. The biggest fire year in the region’s history was 1988, when 2.2 million acres burned.
“There’s an expectation society has (that) we have to fight fires, so we do that,” said Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “The unintended consequence has been build-up of fuels.”
On many days this summer, residents could see smoke columns from miles away, but the scenes didn’t capture the extreme conditions firefighters were seeing up close.
Moisture content in trees, usually 16 to 18 percent at the end of August, was just 6 percent in early July. The tinder-dry fuels were just waiting for a spark and got it June 28, when lightning triggered both the Fool Creek and Ahorn fires.
In some years, north-facing slopes, which are typically higher in moisture content, are used as fire breaks. This year, crown fires roared across them.
“It was gobbling up the acreage and the miles faster than anybody had been able to predict,” said Ian Bardwell, who was on the front lines of the Ahorn.
Bardwell, the trails and stock manager for the Rocky Mountain Ranger District, witnessed 12-foot-tall trees putting off 300-foot high flames.
Flames ranging from 200 to 400 feet in height were frequently seen at all of the fires.
Munoz said a key difference between this year’s wildfires and the fires in the early 1900s might be the availability of airial resources to drop water and retardant, which slow the fires and reduce intensity. Without them, the Ahorn and Fool Creek fires might have made the prairie and charred more acres, he said.
‘Every fire managed’
In these extreme conditions, controlling fire is a thing of the past, Weldon said.
“We need to start learning to live with fire,” he added.
Forest Service officials say an expansion of the agency’s wildland fire-use program is in order.
When fire use is employed, fires are allowed to burn in the wilderness to rejuvenate the forest.
Fire experts note that fire-use fires don’t just benefit the landscape and wildlife. Burned areas reduce fuels in the forest and can serve as fire breaks when big wildfires break out, giving firefighters strategic points to attack.
This year, 70 fires regionwide were designated as fire use, burning a combined 85,000 acres, which includes a portion of the acres charred by the Fool Creek fire. A couple of those fires are located west of the Front fires in the Flathead National Forest including the Amphitheater, Turtle Head and Table Mountain fires.
“It isn’t a let-burn policy,” Weldon said. “Every fire we have out there is being managed.”
Typically under fire use, firefighters delay their attack until flames reach favorable topography, such as a ridgeline or a previously burned area, giving them a fighting chance. That’s what happened on the Fool Creek fire.
Munoz determined it was too dangerous to place initial attack firefighters on the blaze because when he flew over, it was already five acres and burning on all flanks in thick timber, providing no aircraft or smokejumper landing spots or escape routes. He also said that dropping retardant would have been a waste because the fire was burning in such dense fuel and since it was already 8 p.m., there was only time to drop one load.
The day the Fool Creek fire took an 11,000-acre run, it ran into an area burned by a previous fire-use blaze, the 2006 Nanny fire. The old blaze prevented the Fool Creek fire from moving into the head of the North Fork of the Teton River drainage, where it could have headed to Phone Creek and eventually the North Fork of Dupuyer Creek. From there, it could have advanced onto private property.
“It ended up serving a heck of a purpose,” Munoz said of the Nanny fire.
Fire-use fires have expert teams that write detailed plans to manage fires for their duration, which Munoz appreciates. That’s good policy for long-duration suppression fires, too, he added.
To Munoz, labels such as “fire use” and “suppression” are confusing to the public and even some within the agency. He mimics the mindset he thinks is at work on some fires.
“It’s not working but, by golly, we want to show people we’re taking action.”