While eastern and southern parts of the state are already in the thick of fire season, the Flathead is soaked with record rains and rivers just coming down from flood stage. The Flathead is coming off of a record month for rain as more than 6-inches fell across the area for the month of June. Assistant Fire Management Officer Manny Mendoza with the Flathead National Forest says this has kept fire danger low, and freed up resources to fight fire elsewhere.
“Between the Park Service, State, Federal, and contract engines that we have, we have over 21 engines that have gone out off the forest this season. Some of those have come back and gone back out,” Mendoza said, “we’ve had a huge response from the Flathead.”
Mendoza said equipment and personnel have gone to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota as well as in Montana on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and the Bitteroot Forests. Both he and Fire Program Manager Jeremy Pris with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation say they’re keeping skeleton crews locally.
“Here in Flathead County we’re in the unique situation of having a lot of moisture compared to the rest of the state which is having extreme drought, so, we’ve sent out the majority of our fire crews to help out where they’re most needed right now in eastern Montana, Colorado, South Dakota, and Wyoming,” Pris said through agreements firefighters and equipment from outside areas would come to the Flathead should the need arise.
“We will dry out, and we will have a fire season here, it’s just going to be delayed compared to the rest of the state, and that’s one of the reasons we try to help out as much as we can when we have the opportunity to,” Pris said. “That way, when we’re having a really bad day and need some help, we can call those favors back and try to get some help from other spots in the nation that are having their wet time.”
Flathead County Fire Service Area Manager Lincoln Chute said some rural, volunteer fire departments are also farming out engines and personnel. He said county fire departments sent five engines to Helena last week “just overnight- we ran the night shift for them more or less,” Chute said, “what we did, is we gave the local resources time to go home, get rested, get a good night’s sleep, just decompress some.”
Chute said some of the rural fire districts will sign their equipment up with state and federal agencies to be available for firefighting. He said Marion and Evergreen currently have equipment at the Ash Creek Fire in eastern Montana.
“It’s a way to get some great hands-on training; they do get paid for these assignments, on the wild land fires, so the district actually makes a little money to upgrade equipment. I know, in the department that I’m a member of, Badrock, in years past, we’re worked a lot of fires, and that’s how we’ve purchased or upgraded equipment over the years,” Chute said.
Mendoza said as the Flathead heads deeper into the historically drier months of July and August the crews and equipment would be brought back as the fire danger changes locally.
“Right now, we’re OK, and I think, as things move on, getting kind of drier, and we quit getting the rain, we could have a- what I’d call a ‘normal’ fire season, not saying where we won’t have one, but it’ll probably be more of a normal season, probably end of July, August,” Mendoza said. However, both he and Pris say to get back to them in November for a forecast of how the 2012 fire season will be.