State fire officials say last weekend’s record-shattering winter storm put a decisive end to Montana’s 2020 wildfire season. It will be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was the first one to take place during a global pandemic.
Mike DeGrosky describes Montana’s 2020 fire season as an oddball.
"It was strange in that it was abnormally dry in opposite corners of the state. It was a very windy year and we had a lot of critical fire danger."
DeGrosky is Fire Protection Bureau Chief for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
"As we wind it down and do the accounting it looks like we’re coming in a little above average for number of fires and a little above average for number of acres burned."
Specifically, he says almost 2,300 fires burned roughly 403,000 acres this season across the state.
Almost 80 percent of those wildfires were human-caused. DeGrosky says lightning was, relatively speaking, light this summer but human caused fires are still a big issue for the state. According to DNRC, about 60 percent of Montana’s wildfires are typically started by people.
The state’s tab to date on Montana’s share of firefighting costs?
"We’re sitting right now, after reimbursements from the federal government, right at about $12.9 million. The good news is, while we had a lot of fires and more acreage [burned] than normal, the cost is actually a little below average."
DeGrosky ticks off a list of variables he says could explain this year’s lower-than-average fire bill. Those include pre-positioning resources in places where scientists expected trouble, and fine-tuning county co-op agreements that resulted in local firefighters getting to newly reported incidents substantially faster.
These and other factors contributed to a concerted effort to prevent small fires from turning into major incidents. In firefighting parlance it’s called ‘initial attack’.
"Often you hear people refer to ‘dog-piling’ fires. That was definitely the theme this year, and I think we did exceptionally well," DeGrosky says.
He says it’s too soon to know how COVID mitigation affected DNRC’s fire fighting costs this year. DeGrosky suspects this year’s enhanced initial attack efforts increased suppression costs, but adds they had no choice but to "empty the barn" to snuff out as many fires as early as possible.
For every Bridger Foothills, Birdseye, or Snider/Rice fire there were dozens that never made it past an initial smoke report or a quarter acre’s growth. COVID-19 gave fire managers a powerful motivation to be extra-vigilant.
"That’s where we originally started talking about it this spring. Our motivation was, ‘how do we avoid bringing 500 firefighters together in fire camp.'”
The short answer? Hygiene, masks, distancing and dispersal. There were several fires requiring a few hundred firefighters to gather. But they were organized into smaller-than-normal units, dispersed in multiple camps with limited interaction. Boxed meals replaced mass chow lines. Rigorous sanitation and health screening routines were mandatory.
DeGrosky doesn’t yet have DNRC’s final fire season COVID exposure data.
"We did have some COVID exposures on wildland fires. We had some COVID exposures on home units, but I don’t think there’s a person out there who’d disagree with me that it was way, way, lower than we had ever hoped."
He says the biggest incident occurred as fire crews were wrapping up one firefighting effort. Seventy personnel had to be quarantined and tested. That only netted a couple of confirmed exposures and did not impact firefighting operations.
"That was pretty typical of the events that I’m aware of this summer where a person or two got identified, got quickly quarantined, got quickly [demobilized] home. For our agency I’m very pleased with how the precautions and mitigation strategies we had worked out.”
Some strategies worked so well that DeGrosky says they may stick around in post-pandemic fire seasons. For example, incident managers limited the number of experts deployed to fire camps.
"People who did some of the planning work, for example, were set up in a remote unit that was actually serving, sometimes, six to 10 fires. Normally you’d have that unit functioning at each fire camp. That looks like a real keeper."
DeGrosky’s hoping for a COVID-free world, but also understands that may not happen anytime soon. Either way, he says Montana firefighters will be ready for next season
“I know the people that I’ve worked with, both on an interagency basis and within our agency, are very proud of the results we’ve produced. It was a heck of a lot of work and it was a big headache, but I think the results have been excellent. We’re very proud of that."