BOZEMAN — For companies that make money fighting wildfires, business this summer could be hot.
Drought shows up on Clint Kolarich's computer screen as a color-coded map, with vast swaths of the West covered in tan, orange and brown for "severe," "extreme" and "exceptional."
"Looking at this year, the potential is incredible," said Kolarich, assistant fire management officer for Bridger Fire Inc., a firefighting company in Bozeman. But he added, "It doesn't mean it will come to fruition."
Another year of drought may be disastrous for farmers, fishing guides and companies that sell raft trips. But it could mean a busy summer for hundreds of businesses that contract with state and federal governments to provide firefighting; meals, toilets and showers at fire camps; heavy equipment such as bulldozers; and aircraft.
Last year, the Gallatin National Forest paid close to $3,000 a day for a large fire engine and three-person crew operating 24 hours, said Lorette Ray, the forest's public affairs officer.
"When you get a big fire threatening homes, the government has to bite the bullet, protect the homes," said Mike Carisch of Carsich Helicopters west of Belgrade.
"It could be one of the better fire years. It could be very smoky in the state of Montana."
Bridger Fire has completed its hiring for the summer and is gearing up, training a dozen rookie firefighters and preparing six trucks custom built for wildfire work. Managers expect that by summer, the company established 10 years ago will be at full strength, with 35 employees.
Even if Montana gets a cool, wet summer, Bridger Fire expects to have some work. In the past it has sent crews to California for firefighting, to Minnesota for planned burning and to Florida for hurricane response.
Last week, seven rookies were in a classroom, learning about safety, then went to a shop housing chainsaws and other tools of the trade.
"I kind of got interested because of the adventure," said rookie Mike Olson, 27, of Bozeman. "See new lands, maybe do some good."
Firefighters have the potential to log up to 1,000 hours of overtime work in a five-month season, Kolarich said. Pay for Bridger Fire's beginners is similar to government rates of about $8-$10 an hour.
Kolarich said he is drawn to firefighting by the mental and physical challenge, and by the chance to work outdoors.
"My old boss once explained it can be 90 percent ho-hum and 10 percent pure adrenaline," he said. "And once you hit that, either you never do it again or you never leave."
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