Flathead Hotshots — 51 seasons and counting

Deer Park Fire, tipping helicopter
The Life Flight helicopter on the Deer Park Fire in 2010 after landing, and in danger of sliding down a steep slope. Screen grab from USFS video.

The Flathead Beacon has an interesting article about the Flathead Hotshots. A crew that has been based on the national forest with the same name since 1966. The piece is well written and lengthy, but worth your time.

It mentions, among other things, two incidents the crew was involved in between 2008 and 2010. In 2008 two of the firefighters were struck by lightning while working on a prescribed fire.

Two years later on the Deer Park Fire a crewmember suffered a broken femur that became more complicated when the Life Flight helicopter that was going to fly him out landed on the edge of a small helispot and tipped back, resting on its damaged tail rotor and in danger of sliding down a steep slope. This put the helicopter and the helispot out of commission — thus becoming an incident within an incident, within an incident.

A third fire not covered in the article occurred in 2012 when the crew turned down an assignment on the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino, Idaho due to numerous safety-related concerns. The next day Anne Veseth, a 20-year-old firefighter from Moscow, Idaho, was killed while working on the fire. The U.S. Forest Service firefighter was struck when one tree fell and crashed into another tree, causing it to fall onto her in a domino effect.

One item in the newspaper article grabbed my interest:

A study in the late 1990s found that the average male hotshot will lose 15 percent of their bone density from the wear and tear of fire season. The average female hotshot can lose upwards of 23 percent.

I searched and could not find anything about this study. Do any of our readers know where it can be found?

Early season fire in Bob Marshall Wilderness Area

The Elk Hill Fire has burned 1,086 acres in the Wilderness Area.

Above: The Elk Hill Fire. Inciweb photo (undated)

(UPDATED at 10:13 a.m. MDT April 12, 2016)

The Elk Hill Fire in northwest Montana remains at about 1,086 acres with no significant growth yesterday, according to the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Tuesday fire personnel will focus on tying the fireline into the old fire area (from 11 years ago) and the existing trail system on the north end. A Type 2 hand crew going into the fire today will focus on mop-up activities on the south end of the fire.

The forecast calls for some precipitation to reach the fire Wednesday night and Thursday, which could help suppression efforts.


(Originally published at 4:23 p.m. MDT April 11, 2016)

Smokejumpers from three bases made their first jumps this year onto a real fire Sunday in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The eight jumpers from Missoula, West Yellowstone and Grangeville departed from Missoula to help suppress the fire that has been burning since Saturday near Lower North Fork Sun River southeast of the Forest Service cabin on Cabin Creek.

Much of the fuel being consumed is grass and downfall within the footprint of the 2005 Hazard Lake Fire. Kathy Bushnell, spokesperson for the Forest Service, said the fuel moisture in some locations is more like what you would see in mid-summer — very dry.

About 40 people are assigned to the fire along with one Type 1 helicopter and two Type 2 helicopters.

Elk Hills Fire Montana
Elk Hills Fire. Photo by Besmer at about 4 p.m. April 10.
Elk Hills Fire.
Elk Hills Fire. USFS photo (undated).

The Elk Hills Fire is 33 miles west-southwest of Choteau and 73 miles west-northwest of Great Falls.

New Montana DNRC Fire Chief looks at the coming wildfire season

Mike DeGrosky, who started his new job as Chief of Fire and Aviation Management with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation last month, talked to Rob Cheney of the Missoulian about his thoughts concerning the upcoming wildfire season Montana. Below are excerpts from the article:

…“And Billings set a temperature record over the weekend. Now, it could start to rain in June and make everything different. But right now, the call is for significant warmth and continued drought, especially in central and southeast Montana.”

“Almost all the initial attack is performed by the counties, and out there, volunteerism is a huge issue,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of counties where you used to have a volunteer fire department with 25 volunteers and a young, vital crop to recruit from. Now, it’s six guys and the average age is 68.”

Drier fire seasons and declining local firefighter pools combine with a third problem on DeGrosky’s strategic horizon: more things to protect.

“Unregulated growth on the urban interface is a huge problem for us,” he said. “We’ve got more and more people living in fire-prone areas. We’re beyond the time where we think about, ‘What if a fire occurs?’ It’s a question of when a fire occurs – not if. Communities need to think about how they can adapt to survive when impacted by fire. Because we often cannot protect those communities.”…

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Changes at the state fire chief positions in Colorado and Montana

There will be transitions at the top of the state wildfire organizations in Colorado and Montana.

In Colorado, Paul Cooke, the Director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, is retiring. He became the Director in 2012 after the Colorado legislature and Governor Hickenlooper made major changes in the organization and structure of state-level fire and life safety programs. Chief Cooke will remain in the position until his successor is appointed and onboard.

In Montana the Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC) recently selected Mike DeGrosky as the new Fire and Aviation Bureau Chief following the retirement of Ted Mead in December. The Fire and Aviation Management Bureau provides resources, leadership and coordination to Montana’s wildland fire services to protect lives, property, and natural resources; working with local, tribal, state, and federal partners to ensure wildfire protection on all state and private land in Montana.

“Our effort to involve a number of DNRC staff members as well as external partners was met with support and enthusiastic participation across the state, and I found it both rewarding and inspiring to see so many people engaged in the process. We offered Mike DeGrosky the position and he accepted enthusiastically. The DNRC welcomes Mike and is excited to have him join our team,” said Bob Harrington, Forestry Division Administrator.

Mike comes back to DNRC with over 38 years of wildland fire and incident management experience as well as extensive experience in facilitation, consulting, and conflict resolution experience in wildland fire and natural resource organizations.

From 1982-1995 Mike worked for the DNRC in various positions including Rural Fire Forester, Fire Management Specialist, Unit Fire Supervisor and Fire Program Manager. Other services and roles in his career include Volunteer Fire Department Captain, Training Officer, and consultant to fire and emergency management organizations.

DeGrosky is a graduate of the University of Montana, College of Forestry and Conservation, holds a Master’s degree in organizational leadership from Fort Hays State University, and a PhD in Business Administration with an emphasis in organizational leadership from Northcentral University.

“I am looking forward to working with each of you. I will put a high priority on getting out and meeting local officials, fire service organizations and agency partners. I am pleased to be back with the Department and look forward to our work together,” DeGrosky said.

He began working part-time in late January and will assume the duties as Chief full time on February 8, 2016.

1942 typewritten account of the 1910 Big Burn Fires uncovered

Britt Rosso of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center discovered a 23-page typewritten account of some of the stories from the 1910 Big Burn fires that blackened huge areas of Idaho and Montana — the fires that changed the course of fire management in the United States.

Mr. Rosso describes his find:

As I was digging through some boxes at work, I came across a hard copy of this report on the 1910 fires. It was written in 1942 by Elers Koch, who was the Forest Supervisor on the Lolo NF in 1910. He created this 1910 fire summary so history would not be forgotten. It’s now posted on our LLC web site.

There are some amazing stories in here, and there are also reports from seven different fire crews on how they dealt with the “Great Fire”. There is a crew story in here about “burning off a large area…thinking that they would have absolute protection”. Maybe Wag Dodge wasn’t the first FF to ever use an escape fire.

Take your time and read it slowly.

Since documents at the Lessons Learned Center are known to be moved around and become difficult to find, we stashed a copy here for our readers.

One of the stories features the 30-person Moose Creek Crew led by Deputy Supervisor Ed Thenon, who wrote the account. (It is not clear what Forest Mr. Thenon was from.) They were working on a fire in Idaho in the upper Selway River area near Moose Creek. The sleeping crew, which was in an unburned area not near the fire edge, was aroused at 10 p.m. by debris falling in their area. Soon what one of the men thought was a “falling star” landed nearby and started a spot fire. When they could see the fire approaching they moved their camp and their food, or “grub”, to a small six-foot wide sand bar, or strip, in a creek that had water six to eight inches deep. Mr. Thenon told the men to lie in the creek and put wet blankets over their heads. Wet blankets were also put on their horses.

Below is a brief excerpt from his account. Click on it to see a larger version:

1910 Fires excerpt

Even though two men ran off and took refuge in another area, all 30 of them survived. However “the ‘lullaby boy’ was taken to an asylum”.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Mike.

Comparing how the federal government and Montana pay for wildfires

dollar signThe state of Montana and the federal government could not be more different in the way they pay for wildfires.

Montana sets the funds aside in advance while the federal government robs Peter to pay Paul most years, sacrificing fuel management programs to pay for the fires that get bigger in part because those programs were gutted.

Below is an excerpt from an October 19 article in the Billings Gazette about Montana’s program.

After decades of seeing the state pay its firefighting bills after the smoke cleared, state Sen. Pat Connell, a Republican from Hamilton, is pretty happy.

In the 2015 fire season, the state spent $10.5 million. But the Legislature’s fiscal division reported this week that the state’s wildfire suppression fund is at $86.5 million, with just a few bills left to pay.

This year’s balance started at $38.7 million, rolled over from last year, but was boosted by the $13.4 million left over in the governor’s emergency fund. Plus, $21.5 million of leftover appropriations and a one-time infusion of $15 million of excess corporate license taxes.

Connell, who struggled to get those funds together, is happy because there’s no need for a supplemental appropriation in 2017, or a special legislative session, nor did the Department of Natural Resources, which handles state firefighting on 5.2 million acres, have to shut down the water division to pay for firefighting…

On October 18 the Los Angeles Times expounded on the chaos within the federal government about funding wildfires:

When it comes to wildfires, some federal officials are tired of playing catch-up and leaving private property at heightened risk of a blaze.

“We’re really in a negative spiral right now,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said before she boarded a helicopter last week to tour of parts of San Diego County burned by the massive Cedar fire in 2003.

The problem isn’t the result of equipment, training or firefighting strategies, Jewell said. Instead, the problem is rooted in how the government pays to both prevent and fight wildfires, she said.

Jewell said that a change to the complex federal budget could cut the risk of homes going up in flames when a backcountry fire spreads.

When there are major wildfires, the department has to shift some of the money it planned to spend building firebreaks, teaching homeowners how to safeguard their property and other preventive measures to fighting fires.

This accounting maneuver helps the feds and their local partners in emergency situations. But it saps the prevention and rehabilitation budget to prepare for the next big wildfire, she said, adding there’s a greater risk of more and bigger blazes in the future.

“We do not have the capacity in the federal budget to treat those as the emergencies that they really are, as the disasters they really are,” she said as the region heads into the height of the wildfire season.

“When you have a tornado, and you have a flood, and you have a hurricane, or an earthquake, those are natural disasters, and we go to the disaster fund to take care of that so year in year out, landscapes can be protected from those events. We do not have that capacity with fire. It means we are not doing the work to reduce the risk of fighting fires long term…”

Rep. Scott Peters (San Diego), who joined Jewell on the tour, is trying to change the way fires are funded. He and others hope to get legislation passed that would set aside funds in advance based on the 10-year average spent on fire suppression. He expects that it would receive bipartisan support from about 300 members.

However, at the rate the size and costs of fires are increasing, the 10-year average could be an obsolete metric.

Similar legislation has been talked about in Washington for years but Congress has not been motivated to address the issue.

Maybe they should get some advice from Montana.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Steve.