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

‘Fire Year’ Strains Crews’ Mental, Physical Health

Firefighters use drip torches while working on the Granite Pass Complex, July 31, 2021.
Firefighters use drip torches while working on the Granite Pass Complex, July 31, 2021.

Over 1,800 fires have burned over a half million acres in Montana amid hot, dry weather and drought. Fire managers say the fire season is still months away from ending. MTPR’s Edward O’Brien joins Freddy Monares for a big-picture look at how crews are doing.

Freddy Monares: Ed, you spent the last week talking to a few state and regional fire officials. Big picture, what are you hearing about takeaways at this point in the season?

Edward O’Brien: ‘Unprecedented’ is the word I’ve heard. I spoke with Aaron Thompson with the Bureau of Land Management's Montana/Dakotas office. These days he’s leading a special team at the Northern Rockies Coordinating Center that manages and coordinates firefighting resources and strategies. Every night he and his colleagues sit around a table, read reports and speak with their people on the ground. Then Thompson and his team vote on the next day’s firefighting priorities. Talk about pressure.

And he said while it’s too soon to declare it the most challenging and destructive fire season to date, what makes this season stand out is firefighters just can’t get a break.

“Last year we started out in Australia supporting our international partners, then we had COVID hit. We didn’t get much of a winter this year. We rolled right into fire season in North Dakota. The ‘fire year’ never stopped, probably in the past 24 months.”

Edward O’Brien: Increasingly we’re hearing the phrase “fire year” rather than “fire season.”

So before fires really started showing up in Montana, some crews were already tired from fighting fires elsewhere. Now, fires are simultaneously burning in 12 western states.

Freddy Monares: At the start of the season fire managers stressed how important initial attack is going to be, knocking fires out fast, in part because of the dry forecast but also because of the risk of crews gathering in camps during the pandemic. I’m wondering, how successful have these initial attack efforts been?

Edward O’Brien: Most fires are put out in an initial attack, and fire managers say that’s still their goal. But because it’s been so hot and dry for so long, it’s getting harder to put fires out quickly. When fires are catching, they’re spreading fast.

Here’s how Wyatt Frampton put it. He’s a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“Because of the severity of the prolonged drought and drying conditions that we’ve seen through the summer. They’re taking more resources, so the window of opportunity is smaller because of the severity of the fuel conditions.”

Freddy Monares: Got it. So fire managers say they’re still able to get to most all fire starts, but once they get there, the fires are harder to put out?

Edward O’Brien: Right.

Frampton anticipates DNRC and its cooperating agencies will maintain their 96% to 98% initial attack success rate this summer despite the continued hot, dry weather.

But when fires are catching, again, the conditions are ripe to burn fast. And this is really stretching firefighting resources thin, as we and others have been reporting across the west.

There are nearly 40 large fires burning in Montana right now, individually burning from 100 to more than 60,000 acres.

Freddy Monares: What does this mean for fire camps? Have there been reports of COVID spreading among crews?

Edward O’Brien: It depends who you ask.

NRCC Multiagency Coordinating Group Chief Aaron Thompson told me COVID started popping up in fire camps and temporarily knocked a few hand crews out of service in the northern Rockies earlier this season. He couldn’t provide specific numbers of infections but says fire officials are again emphasizing strict COVID safety precautions as we see case numbers in the general population increase in Montana and across the country.

Thompson says fire managers are starting to once again rely more on remote, virtual briefings when possible and dispersing sprawling fire camps.

“We just rolled that back to those protocols here in the last week and a half.”

When I asked state officials at DNRC the same question I was told the agency is not aware of any agency employees contracting COVID-19 as a result of firefighting efforts this year.

Freddy Monares: There are a lot of fires burning, COVID is still a threat in camps, and above-normal wildland fire potential is forecasted for at least another month. How are firefighters holding up?

Edward O’Brien: Crews are getting tired. When I spoke to Thompson he said fire officials are becoming increasingly aware that mental health needs to be addressed. He says fatigue is becoming more and more apparent every day.

And to think that we got potentially 90 more days of this — it could be relentless. You know, just talking with firefighters, they're tired. Visited with a handcrew the other day, they're already at 800 hours of overtime and it's only the beginning of August. And so that has a huge concern to me is, you know, we're asking these people to, to work over 1,000 hours of overtime just to, to meet the mission.

A sign on a fence near the West Lolo Complex says 'Thank you firefighters! Stay safe.'
A sign on a fence near the West Lolo Complex, August 2021.

Edward O’Brien: Firefighters are now encouraged to speak up if they’re feeling overwhelmed. If needed, an extra day or two off is approved. Thompson, a 20-year wildfire fighting veteran, used the phrase “warrior mindset” to describe the culture. This is new stuff — and a big deal.

Thompson and others continue to ask the public to do their part to prevent additional and unnecessary fire starts.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over 34,000 human-caused wildfires have burned over 1 million acres across the country this year.

Freddy Monares: Ed, thanks for your reporting.

Edward O’Brien: Always good talking.

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.  
(406) 243-4065
Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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