Montana faces twin threats this summer: On land, crews are battling some of the biggest and most destructive fires in the country. In the water, officials are staving off the spread of invasive mussels that could cause millions of dollars of damage to hydropower dams and irrigation lines. These threats come together for wildland firefighters, who often use equipment that travels across the country and has the potential to carry invasive hitchhikers with it. But firefighters are tackling the potential contamination head on.
It’s right around sunset on the tarmac at the jet center in Kalispell. Wyatt Frampton, a fire manager with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, fires up a heated pressure washer.
Above him towers a tank-like airplane shaped like a boat with wings. The CL215, more commonly called a super scooper, is on loan from Saskatchewan. Earlier today it was fighting the Bridge Coulee Fire, part of the Lodgepole Complex, on the east side of the Continental Divide.
"Now it's returned back to Kalispell, so what we're going to do now, as the mechanics check the plane out, we're going to use the heated pressure washer to clean the tank," Frampton says.
A pair of mechanics spray the inside of the plane’s two 600-gallon tanks and then get to work on the outside.
It only takes five to 10 seconds of exposure to water heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit to kill most invasive hitchhikers, like quagga and zebra mussels, and within 20 minutes, the whole plane is deemed decontaminated.
Decontaminations usually happen after planes are grounded for the evening, and a tanker would never interrupt active fire fighting to get hosed down. Instead, decontamination of planes, engines, tankers and hoses has become part of regular maintenance and upkeep. And is required any time equipment crosses the Continental Divide.
Frampton says the DNRC has also purchased a second or even third set of some gear, like helicopter buckets, so crews can swap them out on the fly and not double-dip into different water bodies.
"Given what's at stake for the potential spread of aquatic invasives into the ecosystem here, prevention is a small price to pay for potential consequences," Frampton says.
Dan Vermillion, a commissioner for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, agrees. He says a mussel infestation in Montana’s waterways would not only damage the state’s economy, agriculture and water-based ecosystems, but also something much less tangible but just as vital:
"They're kind of the veins and blood vessels of Montana that keep us moving and keep us growing and they keep us healthy. So, when you have an invasive species that can come in and really upset that balance, I think people do feel it, very personally. It's not an abstract thing. They feel and they fear and they’re concerned about it."
Firefighters in Montana aren’t the only ones taking steps to prevent spreading invasive species. This January, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group released a guide that covers best practices for decontaminating firefighting equipment for agencies across the country.
Cynthia Tait, an aquatic ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Utah, wrote the guide.
"And I thought, well that's not going to be too hard," Tait says, "but it actually was very hard because there were no protocols that were based on science or scientific research."
Until this year, fire managers had been cleaning their equipment, but protocols varied between agencies, and there was no way of telling how effective they were.
For the past 10 years, Tait surveyed scientific studies and even ran some tests in a lab to make sure the protocols she came up with made sense for cleaning firefighting equipment. In one case, all the literature recommended using a certain chemical to kill invasive hitchhikers. But when she tested it on actual aviation equipment, "it failed the corrosion test for aluminum.
While mussels were the impetus for creating the guide, it also outlines how to clean off other invasive species — viruses and parasites like hemorrhagic septicemia and whirling disease, and gross invasive algae like didymo, commonly called "rock snot."
"The agency folks that I speak to, they don't want to be part of the problem. They don't want to be the vector that going to be introducing quagga mussels," Tait says.
Tait stresses these are just guidelines. Safety always comes first.
"We've tried to make them as simple and as user friendly and efficient as we could, so we would avoid diverting their attention to this when they have really serious jobs to do," she says.
Tait says she doesn’t know of any examples of firefighting equipment transporting mussels, but it happens with weeds a lot, and the threat is enough for agencies to throw in a few thousand dollars for new equipment and training.