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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

New Forest Service Director Of Fire, Aviation and Air Talks Future Of Fire Management

U.S. Forest Service.
U.S. Forest Service.


 The Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service has a new director of Fire, Aviation and Air.

Ralph Rau will oversee fire management programs spanning 25 million acres of forests and grasslands in Montana, northern Idaho, North Dakota and part of South Dakota.

“That includes our ground forces, aviation and air," says Rau. "The air part is involved with air quality and smoke management.”

Rau replaces Patty Koppenol, who recently retired.

Rau served in the Marine Corps and worked in timber management in the private sector prior to taking up with the Forest Service in 1985. Most recently he served as deputy forest supervisor on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests in north Idaho.

Firefighting is a tough job under the best of circumstances. It’s only getting more difficult as fire seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and burning more intensely.

Rau says climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the Forest Service.

"The frequency of those large seasons has gotten closer and closer and closer," he says. "The risk levels that people have now compared to when I was out pounding the ground myself is much higher. The large fire frequency, the fire behavior – it occurs more and more often. It’s not going to go away."

Rau says firefighter safety is a top priority.

“I started as a rookie smokejumper in 1986. When I think back to those times and then to where we are now, the measure of safety that we’ve introduced into the program is huge," he says.

He says wildfire fighters are now explicitly told to trust their own instincts, “to keep themselves and their people safe. If somebody has a feeling that something (on the ground) is not working, is not safe, that’s the time to say, ‘OK, we’re going to back off. I’m going to get my people off this. We’re going to reassess.’ They’ll then re-engage. They’ll come up with a different plan.”

That’s particularly relevant now as more firefighters are being asked to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface.

According to 2010 Census data, 99 million Americans - roughly one third of the American population – lives in those fire-prone zones.

That’s forcing fire agencies to make difficult decisions.

“Last year was a case in point where I was on the Nez Perce Clearwater," he says. "We had lots of fires in Kamiah (Idaho). We had to focus on the threat to those communities. We directed most of our resources to assist the state with those fires. That caused some fires in the backcountry to be larger than what they would have been, but we had to take care of that threat to life and property.”

Rau urges Montanans to be exceptionally careful with fire this summer.

“We are getting rain right now which is a very nice thing and it will probably delay things, but as we progress through the season, depending on how hot of a July we get, we could still be pretty well primed for fires in August. Heading into the 4th of July weekend, I’d still caution people to be careful with fire," he says.

Rau says he’ll soon be reaching out to meet with officials from other partner fire agencies on the local, state and regional levels.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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