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

Montana Firefighters Lend A Hand In California

A firefighter stands in front of flames from a wildfire. Stock photo.
A firefighter stands in front of flames from a wildfire. Stock photo.

Wildland firefighting is a team effort. California has helped Montana during wildfire crises, and now Montana is returning the favor.

California’s fires have consumed tens of thousands of acres and forced thousands to flee their homes. With their resources stretched thin and firefighters battling fatigue, incident commanders reached out for help Sunday.

Nine western states including Montana responded.

"Right now we’ve got approximately 65 people and 25 vehicles that are headed, as we speak, en route to California."

That’s Montana Department of Military Affairs spokesman

Captain Dan Bushnell. Military Affairs works hand in hand with the Montana Department of Emergency Services.

"In my career I’ve seen California support us more than four or five times. They’ve sent engines and personnel up here to help us during our fire season. It’s really a good neighborly thing to do. We’re helping them, they’ve helped us in the past."

Staff from roughly 18 local fire agencies from across Montana will be gone for more than two weeks; that includes 14 day deployments with a total of four days travel.

Lincoln Chute is Flathead County’s Fire Services Manager:

"We really don't have a very large wildland [fire] potential at this point in time. When you got snow on the ground you don’t really feel like your wildland equipment is really critical to have right in your area."

Chute says several fire departments from Flathead County, including Big Fork, Marion, Whitefish and Evergreen have engines and staff heading west to California.

"By spreading them out, it really actually is a benefit, I believe. Because what you end up doing is giving experience, knowledge and skills that you typically would not have on these bigger incident types that they can bring back. And on a really bad day in Montana, you know, you have some people that have another experience level."

Helena Fire’s Assistant Chief, Mike Chambers, says six local firefighters and two trucks deployed for California Tuesday. That’s a first for his team.

"We really haven’t had the staffing and training, you know, many, many years back, but since Helena sits within the wildland urban interface and we do have wildland incidents, we’ve really been ramping-up our wildland training and expertise and whatnot over the last number of years. And this year we want to be involved. Our city manager’s from California. She very much understands the issues that occur down there. We’re just happy to be on board to have our crews highly trained and ready to go."

Two engines and six firefighters from Columbus, about 40 miles west of Billings are joining the fight in California.

Fire Chief Rich Cowger says, "When a state, especially like California, with a very robust mutual aid system – they have a very robust fire system as a whole – when they’re reaching out for help, you know it’s a bad day for them."

Cowger says the aid coming in from the nine states responding to California’s plea for help will hopefully give the Golden State’s first responders a chance to catch up.

"Because even though everything is going on with the big fires, they still have normal operations to tend to. The local fire departments still have their day to day EMS calls, car accidents, structure fires, those kind of things to handle; plus now these catastrophic wildland fires on top of that. In the fire service people don’t typically reach out for help unless they really need it. They’re asking for help, so we’ve got it."

Forecasters say all the elements are in place Tuesday evening for a powerful new round of southern California’s notorious Santa Ana winds

The National Weather Service predicts what it’s calling a "remarkable and dangerous event" with 60 to 70 mph gusts in the mountains and some valleys.

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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