A little over a week ago, after strong winds and soaring daytime temperatures pushed a wildfire through a vast swath of the Bears Paw Mountains south of Havre, the situation for the fire team managing the blaze was grim. The more than 15,000-acre East Fork Fire had zero containment, had destroyed at least five cabins and was threatening an estimated 130 additional structures in the area.
Yet firefighters assigned to the blaze had little hope of receiving backup, with national resources stretched uncommonly thin in what has shaped up to be a historic fire season in the Western U.S.
“The national situation is there are so many fires and so many incidents going on that there are extremely limited resources,” Martin Balukas, who worked as a spokesman with the team, noted at the time. “Right now, we have enough to be operationally effective. I don’t mean to imply that firefighting resources are being jeopardized, but we’re in the unusual situation of relying on county and local resources for much longer than is ordinary.”
Forecasters are cautiously optimistic that the end of this week could bring a long-awaited shift to seasonal temperatures, with a cold front expected to bring the first significant precipitation that Montana — and much of the inland Pacific Northwest — has seen in well over a month.
But in the meantime, a national shortage of firefighting resources persists throughout Montana and adjacent portions of the Northern Rockies, where more than 2,800 wildfires this year had burned more than 1.2 million acres of land.
Each day, the National Interagency Fire Center reviews the list of major wildfires burning across the west and designates priorities based on ten geographic areas across the country, and the highest-priority fires burning within those regions. The Northern Rockies region comprises Montana, Northern Idaho, North Dakota and portions of Wyoming and South Dakota.
As of Sunday, the more than 130,000-acre Rice Ridge fire, burning in the densely forested mountains north of Ovando and east of Seeley Lake, was highest priority in the nation, out of 38 large, uncontained wildfires currently burning in the United States.
“If we had more resources available, we would be ordering them,” said Nicole Sticknie, a spokeswoman for the Type 1 incident management team assigned to the Rice Ridge fire. “The reality is that everybody is stretched thin with the amount of fires, and the large fires that we’re facing right now, in pretty much the whole nation.”
Incident management teams, assigned by the National Interagency Fire Center to manage the most complex fires burning in the country, draw their personnel from agencies throughout local, state and federal government agencies across the U.S. Type 1 teams are assigned to the most serious wildfires and fire complexes. All 16 of those top-tier teams are currently deployed throughout the country, and four are battling blazes in Western Montana.
“It does happen occasionally that we’ve got so much fire activity nationwide that it’s a challenge to get resources,” Brian Harris, with the Type 1 team fighting the Alice Creek fire northeast of Lincoln. “I certainly think this fire season is shaping up to be a remarkable one, with the volume of wildfires going on throughout the United States.”
On the western end of the Billings Logan International Airport, a massive DC-10 air tanker parked near the inter-agency fire cache has recently appeared as a testament to the extreme fire conditions persisting throughout Montana. After initially staging out of Helena earlier this summer, fire officials began using the Billings airport due to the visibility-limiting smoke plaguing most of Western Montana.
One of three such firefighting jets in the country, this summer is the first time it began operating out of the Treasure State, and Bureau of Land Management spokesman Al Nash noted that temporary infrastructure needed to be installed at the Billings airport to accommodate the massive aircraft, which has a 11,600-gallon capacity for carrying chemical retardant.
“In the Northern Rockies, we’ve been at Preparedness Level 5 since August 10. That’s atypical,” Nash said, referring to the national fire center’s ranking for regional wildfire conditions.
He noted that fire crews who typically work 14-day shifts with a two-day rest period in between are being asked to fight fire for 21-day stretches. And their growing fatigue is further compounded by the exodus of college-enrolled crew members returning to school for their fall semesters.
In an average year, the region would have already received a significant dump of rain or snow referred to as a “season-ending event,” according to Mike Cole, another fire spokesman with the Type 1 team fighting the Rice Ridge Fire. He compared the length and severity of this year to the historic fire season of 2000, which scorched nearly 600,000 acres in Montana.
While season-ending rains may be in store during the next couple weeks, he warned that the prolonged fire conditions in the Western U.S. could have a ripple effect on other parts of the country.
“In a normal year, the fires would be winding down in the West right now, and we would be ramping up and being ordered to Florida and Texas for hurricane relief efforts,” he said.
As a long-time member of the Kalispell-based incident management team, Cole remembers leaving the wildfires behind and heading to San Antonio, Texas, in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Twenty-person crews and other team members who typically battle flames in the Western U.S. found themselves working under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, assisting hurricane refugees and using their chainsaws to clear downed trees from roadways in the wake of the damaging storms.
“FEMA is going to be running into the same problem we are, where they can usually rely on us for additional resources, and we’re not available,” Cole said. “It’s just kind of bad timing this year.”