Drone stalls airtanker flights over Montana fire

Montana law enforcement officials have seized a drone that shut down airtanker flights Saturday over the Fritz fire, burning outside of Billings. 

The incident comes less than a month after the Federal Aviation Administration sent a mass email to all people who have drones registered with agency asking that they not fly during wildfires. 

The email warned that “drone operators who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.”

(Read a copy of the email here.)

The Fritz fire has destroyed at least one home and burned more than 1,000 acres, according to local media reports. As of Sunday, local media said it was at 40 percent containment. 

The fire ignited Friday evening, and that night a private drone was spotted flying in the area. The Billings-Gazette reported law enforcement officials took possession of the drone on Friday. 

It appears that flight operations were shut down for a half-an-hour.  

Drones, like other aircraft, are subject to temporary flight restrictions put in place during a wildfire, according to information from the National Fire Information Center. 

According to information compiled by NIFC: 

“Individuals who are determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts may be subject to civil penalties and potentially criminal prosecution.” 

Montana: possible large fire north of Big Timber

(UPDATE at noon, July 9, 2016)

After we inquired, we heard back from Bruce Suenram, Deputy Chief with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. He said neither his Department or the County are aware of a large fire in this area.

It looks like a major failure by MODIS; 54 false positive fire detections (most of which had a “high” confidence rating) by the fairly new and highly touted Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. The VIIRS 375-meter sensor system on the Suomi-NPP satellite began collecting data late last year.

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(Originally published at 9:50 MDT July 9, 2016)

Map Big Timber Fire
Heat detected by a satellite at 1:40 p.m. July 8, 2016.

The MODIS satellite system detected heat Friday afternoon spread over a large area across Highway 191 25 miles north of Big Timber and 12 miles south of Harlowton, Montana. We drew a perimeter around it encompassing over 20,000 acres. It does not show up in the national or regional situation reports.

We are checking to see if this is an actual fire and will update this article if more information becomes available.

Montana: Pole and Fine Fires

Pole Fire
Pole Fire – USFS photo

The Pole and Fine Fires are burning a mile apart in southwest Montana 18 miles southwest of Ennis and 47 miles northwest of West Yellowstone. The lightning-caused fires were discovered June 30 in stands of standing dead and down timber.

Firefighters are engaging the fires as they move out of the timber stands into meadows in order to minimize exposure to numerous snags. Actions to secure the whitebark pine stand adjacent to the Pole Fire continue. Structure and private property assessments are on-going on the Fine fire.

Pole and Fine Fires
Vicinity map for the Pole and Fine Fires. Click to enlarge.

The heat-sensing satellites, capable of detecting large concentrations of heat from vegetation fires, has not found any since July 1 at 4:30 a.m.

Map Pole-Fine Fire
They yellow icons represent heat detected by a satellite over the Pole and Fine Fires at 4:30 a.m. MDT July 1, 2016. Click to enlarge.

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.

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(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.