Montana Fire Chief dies one month after vehicle accident

Dave Anderson, a volunteer Fire Chief in Fort Shaw, Montana died Monday, a month after he was injured in a traffic accident. Cascade County Deputy Coroner Jason Boyd said the Chief died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash, along with cardiac complications. The Montana Highway Patrol said he was driving a water tender on U.S. Highway 89 on July 22 when his vehicle collided with a brush truck that was making a U-turn because the driver had missed a turnoff.

On June 19 another Montana firefighter and a family of five was killed when the fire engine driven by Three Forks Fire Chief Todd Rummel experienced a mechanical problem that locked up one of the wheels, causing the truck to veer into the path of the oncoming pickup. Investigators determined that Chief Rummel died of smoke inhalation while unconscious. Matthew Boegli, Crystal Ross and their three young children died of blunt-force trauma on impact. The Chief was driving back to Three Forks at 55 mph while returning from Helena where the truck had been undergoing repairs to its water system.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families.

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Montana: Lost Horse Fire burns through boulder fields

Map of Lost Horse Fire

Google Earth 3-D map of Lost Horse Fire 1:30 a.m. MDT, July 28, 2014.

The Lost Horse Fire 10 miles southwest of Hamilton, Montana is an interesting study in wildland fire behavior and fire suppression tactics. The 40-acre fire is burning in boulder and rock scree fields where the primary method of spreading is through spotting — burning embers traveling hundreds of feet or more and starting new fires in receptive fuels. Some of the patches of vegetation appear to be an acre or more, but most of them are small. The fire is burning on very steep terrain. That fact and the large bounders make it very difficult for firefighters to even walk around in the fire area.

On Saturday three helicopters dropped 72,900 gallons of water on the fire. A large air tanker dropped more than 4,000 gallons of fire retardant on the ridge to try and keep the fire from moving further north.

If you are used to building a fireline to suppress fires, this one already has “firelines” pretty much everywhere – the boulder and rock scree fields that comprise more of the area than the vegetation does.

There is no place for a helicopter to land in the boulders. Rappellers have said they could rappel into the area but there is not much they could do once they are on the ground. So far the only attack has been from helicopters and an air tanker.

Looking at the video below and images from Google Earth, there is more continuous vegetation on the ridge and on the north side, but trying to build fireline where trees grow out of crevices between large rocks would be difficult.

This might be the classic case of needing to back off and find a place from which a burnout could occur, or just try to cool it off from the air to reduce torching and spotting — apparently what they are doing now. If they do nothing but monitor it, it might run out of fuel in a while, or it could be a real pain in the ass for the next four to eight weeks of fire season.

Lost Horse Fire

Screen grab from video of Lost Horse Fire.

Lost Horse Fire

Lost Horse Fire. Undated USFS photo.

You can keep up with the fire on InciWeb and Facebook.

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Updated: missing firefighter in Montana found

(UPDATED at 8 p.m. MDT, July 28, 2014)

The missing firefighter that got separated from his crew overnight in Montana has been identified as 30-year old Justin Wall, in his fourth summer fighting fire with the Bitterroot National Forest.

When he was found at 3 p.m. today he did not have any obvious injuries, but was described as “disoriented” and very hungry by the searchers who discovered him. As this is written Monday evening Mr. Wall is still in the hospital in Hamilton, Montana undergoing a CT Scan and other tests, according to U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Tod McKay.

The search involved multiple aircraft and more than 50 searchers on the ground. Ravalli County Search and Rescue was assisted by the Bitterroot National Forest, Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and Granite County Search and Rescue.

“We are so thankful and relieved that Justin was found today and is in stable condition,” said Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King. “I would like to thank Ravalli County Search and Rescue and all the volunteers and organizations who assisted with this search. It was because of their quick response, teamwork, and professionalism that this search ended positively.

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(UPDATED at 3:19 p.m. MDT, July 28, 2014)

The firefighter that had been missing since Sunday, July 27, has been found walking on Skalkaho Rye Road three miles from where he was last seen. Initial information from U.S. Forest Service sources reported that the firefighter was not injured and did not need medical assistance, but later information said he was transported to Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, Montana.

While the crew was hiking 1.5 miles in to the fire on Sunday, he was lagging behind and told the supervisor that he was having trouble with his boot and would catch up with them later. The rest of the crew continued to the fire, but when he did not show up they began searching for him.

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(Originally published at 11:23 a.m. MDT, July 28, 2014. This article will be updated as more information is available.)

A wildland firefighter working on a fire on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana is missing. Tod McKay, the Public Affairs Officer for the Bitterroot National Forest, said the firefighter was a member of an eight-person hand crew working out of Darby, Montana mopping up the one-acre Weasel Fire Sunday afternoon July 27 when reported missing. The other firefighters began a search and notified Ravalli County Search and Rescue, which is continuing the effort today.

The Weasel Fire is about 10 miles east of Hamilton and 40 miles south of Missoula near the border of the Bitterroot and Beaverhead/Deerlodge National Forests. The fire had been contained on Saturday and was being checked and mopped up by the Darby crew on Sunday.

In August of last year another U.S. Forest Service firefighter was reported as missing while fighting a fire in New Mexico. Seven days later the body of Engine Captain Token Adams was found, the victim of a fatal all terrain vehicle crash. That fatality prompted additional discussion about systems that could track the location of firefighters.

We hope there will be a better outcome for this latest missing firefighter.

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Photos from the Fire Lab

Test fire in lab

A test fire in the Fire Lab

These photos were taken as part of the Large Fire Conference during a tour of the Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Most of the pictures were taken in sections of the lab where researchers work with actual live fire.

Soil heating test fire

Live fire to test the amount of soil heating

Soil test fire

Live fire to test the amount of soil heating

Fire test in wind tunnel

Fire test in wind tunnel

Below is an 11-second video showing a fire whirl the scientists created in the lab.

As bonus, since you made it this far into the article, are a couple of photos that were taken at the University of Montana during the Large Fire Conference in Missoula.

tethered balloon

A tethered balloon which could be flown hundreds of feet above the ground to host radio repeaters, cell phone repeaters, a camera, or a wireless router for internet service.

Tanker 41

A BAe-146, Tanker 41, flyover May 21 at the University of Montana during the Large Fire Conference at Missoula. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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Some Montana firefighters no longer obligated to save homes from wildfires

Structure fire in Hot Springs, SD.

Structure fire in Hot Springs, SD. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The County Commissioners of Lewis and Clark County in Montana recently approved a resolution making it clear that county-level firefighters are not under an obligation to protect a home from a wildfire in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Below is an excerpt from an article in the Missoulian:

“…A lot of crews think they have to protect homes, and we’re trying to make it clear they’re just sticks and bricks,” said Sonny Stiger, who helped write the resolution. “This lets our firefighters know they’re not obligated to put their lives on the line to save homes.”

Stiger, a retired fire and fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service and a board member with FireSafe Montana, said building defensible space around homes in the urban interface is the sole responsibility of property owners who choose to live there.

Stiger said the new resolution makes it clear that homeowners should not expect firefighters to put their lives at risk to defend property.

“We can save a lot of homes going back in after the fire front passes, or in the case of the Yarnell Hill fire, not going in at all,” Stiger said, referring to the Arizona blaze that killed 19 firefighters in June. “It’s time we stepped up at the county level to deal with this, and to let (firefighters) know they’re not obligated to protect homes…”

The resolution says in part:

Homes in the Wildland/Urban Interface will not dictate fire suppression tactics, strategies, or the location of fire lines.

The article claims this is a “first-of-its-kind resolution”, which may be the case. There is no doubt that some homeowners who moved into the WUI and refuse to cut or thin the trees and brush growing within 100 feet of their houses will be furious at this concept. Some of them take no responsibility as a property owner to make their homes fire-safe, but expect firefighters, many of them volunteers, to risk their lives to save their structures.

Placing the primary responsibility to protect a home from wildfire on the property owner, where it belongs, is very appropriate. County, city, and state regulations recognizing this do not exist in many areas..

On the Yarnell Hill Fire there was at least one person in a supervisory role who asked the Granite Mountain Hotshots to move from their safe, previously burned area, over to the the town of Yarnell in order to protect the structures, many of which were described later as not defendable due to brush and trees very close to the buildings. Some of the homeowners had done little or nothing to make their homes fire-safe. As the crew hiked through unburned brush toward the town, they were overrun by the fire and killed.

In the structural firefighting world you will sometimes hear opinions about risk-taking while fighting fire, including:

  • Risk a lot to save a lot.
  • Risk a little to save a little.
  • Risk nothing to save nothing.

“Risk a lot” usually refers to rescuing occupants or preventing their death. “Save nothing” may apply to an abandoned building.

In wildland fire, vegetation could be in the “nothing” category. Sure, wildland fuels may have ecological, watershed, aesthetic value, or monetary value in the case of timber or pasture, but most vegetation has adapted or evolved to burn on a regular basis and will usually grow back. Houses grow back too, but firefighters don’t. Firefighters should never risk much to save acres OR houses.

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Montana Supreme Court upholds burnout lawsuit

GavelTuesday the Montana Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision in a lawsuit filed by a rancher whose land burned in the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000. In 2012 a jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the fire. The Weavers claimed firefighters’ burouts caused them to lose valuable timber and grass in their pastures. The fire burned 17,000 acres near the Clark Fork River along Interstate 90.

The heart of the Weavers’ case was their contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring or burning out, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of their ranch.

The State of Montana argued that a legal principle known as the “public duty doctrine” prohibited the recovery of damages for government efforts to contain and suppress a wildland fire. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the State had not raised the issue in time and declined to consider the argument. The Court determined that the State had not given adequate notice to the landowners that it would be relying on that legal theory. Because the issue was not raised until three weeks before trial, the District Court was within its discretion in ruling that the plaintiffs did not have adequate time to respond.

The Court also rejected the State’s arguments that the plaintiffs had failed to present adequate expert testimony at trial and that the trial court should have moved the trial to a different county.

In 2012 we wrote an analysis of the case: “Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana”.

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