USA The number of firefighters in rural Montana districts is declining, which has the potential to limit the quick response needed to keep fast-moving wildland fires in check, according to the state forester.
Even where there are firefighters, those men and women are limited in how long they can be gone from their jobs and homes to fight larger fires that may take days or weeks to extinguish, Bob Harrington, of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told the Environmental Quality Council at its Thursday meeting in Helena.
Thats a challenge that will be with us into the future until we have a different solution, Harrington said.
Rural firefighters are often the first responders to blazes in remote portions of Montana. Last year DNRC trained 4,000 volunteers across the state. Harrington said these firefighters deserve credit for the states continued firefighting success.
The DNRC has also supplied rural fire districts with more than 200 new engines since 2005 to better equip those volunteers to fight fires 32 engines this year alone.
That has made a tremendous difference in their response and safety, Harrington said.
But rural Montana, especially Eastern Montana, continues to see its population dwindle. Those who stay are getting older. The challenge in the future may be finding enough able-bodied folks to staff volunteer fire departments at a time when fire conditions seem to be increasingly more extreme.
It is problematic and something we need to seriously work at, said Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, an EQC member and former chairman of a fire district.
To make up the difference, Harrington said the DNRC sent some of its staff and engines from the western side of Montana to its Billings and Miles City offices earlier in the fire season. However, thats created issues for those small offices to deal with an influx of personnel finding places for those folks to sleep and eat. Thats an issue DNRC will be addressing in the off season, he said.
By the numbers
So far this year DNRC has responded to 252 fires that burned 223,000 acres, what Harrington called an average year. Those fires were fought at a cost of $15.1 million. That leaves the states fire suppression account with a balance of about $70 million.
Out of the 252 fires there were 13 large fires that consumed 76 percent of the total fire-fighting expenditures, Harrington said. The Copper King fire near Thompson Falls alone accounted for about half of the states fire-fighting costs. Now contained, the blaze that started on July 31 has burned more than 28,500 acres the largest in Montana this year. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Harrington noted that typically 15 percent of the states fires account for 80 percent of the costs to fight them.
Work by the state with the federal government to allow DNRC aircraft to fight federal fires resulted in state aircraft being used three times on federal fires, Harrington said, but he noted that the system is still far from full color blind.
Its amazing to see the changes over the last 10 to 12 years, said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek.
He credited Harrington, the DNRC and the Legislature for taking the needed steps to address Montanas increasingly dangerous wildland fire threat.
Along with the Copper King fire there are four other fires still actively burning in Montana. All but the Harris fire, which is burning between Birney and Decker in southeastern Montana, are in Western Montana.
Across the United States, more than 42,900 fires have burned 4.7 million acres so far this year. That compares to more than 46,300 fires last year that burned 8.8 million acres.
Im not pretending the season is over, Harrington told the EQC. We still have potential to have fast-moving fires in Eastern Montana.