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Gianforte sets wildfire priorities for ‘above-normal’ season

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MONTANA — In a wildfire briefing at the state Capitol attended by more than a dozen land use and wildfire response agency leaders, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wants to double the number of treated acres on Montana’s forests and pressured the National Park Service to extinguish all wildfire starts on park service lands.

Gianforte said the state is undergoing a forest health crisis due to insect outbreaks, disease and heavy fuel loading that leads to an elevated wildfire risk. Increasing treatment — forest management strategies including some mix of thinning, logging and prescribed burning — on Montana’s forests will help fire managers keep wildfire ignitions small and make it safer for firefighters to put them out, he said. To that end, he told the agency leaders in attendance that the state intends to double the acreage of treated forest in Montana.  

Paige Cohn, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told Montana Free Press the agency treated 11,000 acres last year and aims to treat 25,000 acres on private, state and federal land this year with a combination of logging, thinning, and prescribed burns.

“Given the forest health crisis here in Montana, I call on all of us around this table to get more private, state, tribal and federal acres into active forest management to reduce the risk facing our communities,” Gianforte said.

Melany Glossa, the Forest Service’s deputy regional forester, said her agency is in alignment with that approach. 

“When you’re talking about the Montana Comeback Plan, when you’re talking about the Montana Forest Action Plan [and] diving in to utilize Good Neighbor Authority, all of those things couldn’t be in any more alignment with what the Forest Service is doing and wanting to do,” she said. The Montana Forest Action Plan involves an assessment of current forest conditions and prioritizes areas for treatment. The Good Neighbor Authority is a collaboration between the state, Forest Service and BLM that aims to reduce fuel loads, supply mills with timber and improve forest health and resiliency. 

During the briefing, Gianforte and Jay Lushner, regional fire management officer for the National Park Service, had an exchange hinting at a difference of priorities between Montana’s executive branch and the NPS, which was among the first federal agencies to recognize the role fires play in maintaining the health of fire-adapted ecosystems. 

Gianforte asked Lushner if his agency was committed to aggressive initial attack on wildfire starts in line with Montana’s policy, and Lushner responded that NPS does deploy an aggressive initial response, but also considers fire’s natural role in the landscape, particularly in Yellowstone National Park. 

Gianforte interrupted to say, “Aggressive initial attack includes extinguishing the fire. Are you committed to aggressive initial attack and extinguishment of the fires?”

“Some fires, yes,” Lushner responded.

Gianforte pressed: “All fires in the national park will be extinguished immediately when they’re detected?” 

When Lushner said no, not all fires would be given that treatment, Gianforte recounted a personal experience with wildfire in Glacier National Park. 

“We watched the cabins burn around Lake McDonald because there was not aggressive initial attack. This is a follow-on discussion,” he said. He asked Lushner to provide him with a copy of the Park Service’s initial attack plan.

Montana set for an ‘above normal’ fire season

Montana is heading into an above-normal fire season due to the moderate to severe drought affecting much of the state, which has created conditions ripe for moisture-starved fuels to burn readily, according to Coleen Haskell, the Northern Rockies Coordinating Council’s predictive services meteorologist, who presented at the briefing.

Haskell noted that even though the regular fire season is just starting, more than 32,000 acres across the state have already burned. Humans started most of those fires, she said.

Unlike Montana’s monsoon-free 2020, the state is shaping up to get a late-July monsoonal flow, a weather pattern that starts in the southwest and moves into the Northern Rockies as the summer progresses. Monsoonal patterns often bring rain, but also lightning and wind, which can start and spread fires.

Haskell said Montana is in better shape than neighboring states like North Dakota, and in a significantly better position than the southwest, which is facing a persistent pattern of drought that’s notable for both its extremity and breadth. She said the current drought in that region of the country is more expansive than any that have been recorded in at least 125 years.

Haskell also said she’s been fielding lots of questions about how this year might compare to 2017, when more than 740,000 acres burned across Montana, leading to state firefighting expenditures of more than $74 million. Record-breaking events by their nature tend to be anomalies, she said, so they’re difficult to predict.

“I do think we will see above-normal for our fire season,” she said, adding that she expects “another smoke episode,” whether it originates within the state or outside of it.

Jim Forsythe, the fire management officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana, noted that conditions near the Missouri River Breaks are trending toward what was seen in 2017, which gave rise to one of the largest wildfires in the Northern Rockies that season, the Lodgepole Complex, which burned more than 270,000 acres. 

“We recognize that if conditions persist and rain doesn’t occur, it’s going to take an all-hands-on-all-lands approach,” he said. 

Firefighter burnout

Several agency representatives briefly touched on an issue that’s been receiving more national attention in recent years: the impact of extended fire seasons on firefighters’ morale and health. 

Rich Cowger, president of the Montana State Fire Chiefs, said firefighters start the season ready to work, “but the more it extends, the more people get burned out.” He said firefighting forces often struggle with “long-term, months-on-end” engagements. 

Aaron Thompson, the state fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management, echoed that concern in his remarks. “Going in, we’re ready to roll. Coming out? Depending on how hard and long and arduous this is, we’re going to wear people out. That’s a challenge and a difficulty that is hard to plan and work through,” he said. 

The recent death of smokejumper Tim Hart was front-of-mind during the briefing. Hart, who lived in Cody, Wyoming and worked out of the West Yellowstone Smokejumper Base, died last week from injuries sustained while parachuting into a fire in New Mexico. 

Gianforte opened the meeting with a moment of silence for Hart and said he and his wife, Susan, would keep Hart’s friends and family in their prayers.

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