The Northern Rockies Fire Cache – A firefighting megastore

Above: Northern Rockies Fire Cache at Missoula. USFS photo.

(Originally published at 5:20 p.m. MDT August 29, 2018)

From adapters for everything imaginable to wrenches in all sizes – the Northern Rockies Fire Cache is a wildland firefighting megastore. When firefighters need equipment, tables, clothing, foot powder, sleeping bags, radios, or even medical supplies they call on the Cache to meet their needs.

Located in Missoula, Montana, the Northern Rockies Cache serves a wide range of federal, state, local and tribal government agencies within the Northern Rockies Geographical Area, an area of roughly 235,654 square miles.

The Northern Rockies Cache is capable of immediately supplying up to 5,000 firefighters and more than 30 major wildland fires. Support is sustained with a steady flow of replacement supplies from vendors and other Caches.

The Cache is moving toward becoming a minimal waste facility. Every piece of equipment returned to the Cache from a fire is assessed to see if it can be fixed, repaired, or refurbished. If it can, it is cleaned and repaired in-house saving considerable taxpayer dollars. If the equipment is beyond repair it gets recycled if possible. Last year alone the Cache recycled over 22,000 pounds of steel and almost 11,000 pounds of batteries.

Following the 2017 wildland fire season, the Cache inspected, laundered, and repaired over 40,000 pieces of Nomex clothing and over 9,000 sleeping bags. Working through this amount of laundry involves a lot of people – clothes and sleeping bags are inspected when they return from the fireline, sent to local businesses to be laundered, separated by size and condition, and those items needing a little TLC are set aside to be worked on during the winter months. Smokejumpers, known for their elite firefighting skills are also known for their sewing abilities and are called on during the winter to repair Nomex clothing so it can be used again the next season.

How does it work? When a fire burns for a number of days it quickly surpasses the local unit’s ability to provide needed supplies and provisions. Fire managers will place orders for the things they need to the Cache which quickly assembles and ships the supplies. When the fire no longer needs the supplies they return them to the Cache to be cleaned, refurbished and restocked. This includes the miles of hose that has to be pressure tested, cleaned to remove any aquatic hitchhikers (aquatic invasive species), dried, and finally rolled and stacked. Following the 2017 fire season over 1,200 miles of hose (enough hose to reach from Missoula to Long Beach, CA) went through this process.

fire cache at the National Interagency Fire Center
Portable pumps in the fire cache at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID. BLM photo.

A few Cache figures from the 2017 fire season: 1,300 pumps cleaned and refurbished (the last pump was put back on the shelf ready for the 2018 fire season in June – a year after the 2017 fire season began); almost 400 chainsaws, over 8,200 fire tools, almost 3 million pairs of earplugs, almost 300 pounds of foot powder, over 1.2 million AA batteries; and 64,420 MREs (meals ready to eat) which is enough to feed one person, three meals a day for 58.8 years.

Although its primary focus is to support fire suppression activities in northern Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota (referred to as the Northern Rockies Geographical Area), the Northern Rockies Cache may also lend support to any type of emergency incident in every part of the country. Beginning in the late 1990s, this helping hand and support was extended to include Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

This Cache’s staffing operation consists of 15 people year round and up to 50 during the summer. This highly skilled workforce has met the needs of firefighters across the nation for the last 3 years with no serious accidents.

Howe Ridge Fire causes more evacuations in Glacier National Park

Above: CL-215 water scooping air tankers working the Howe Ridge Fire August 16, 2018. InciWeb photo.

During the last four days the Howe Ridge Fire has spread almost three miles toward the southwest, and also moved south along the shore of Lake McDonald where it is 7 miles north of West Glacier, Montana. On the north end it is less than half a mile west of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

There are 134 personnel are assigned to the 7,835-acre blaze. That is a small number considering its size and the fact that the fire is causing evacuations, has destroyed 27 structures, and is threatening numerous others. Fire officials have not been able to acquire the number of firefighting resources that they need. This is due to reductions in the budgets of the federal land management agencies and competition from the other 55 large wildfires burning across the western states, many of which are also making do with inadequate staffing on their fires.

map Howe Ridge Fire
The red lines represent the perimeter of the Howe Ridge Fire at 12:30 a.m. MDT August 19. The white line was the perimeter on August 15. Click to enlarge.

Below is a video posted to YouTube August 16 by Justin Bilton. He described it like this:

We were camped 2.5 up the North Macdonald Trail when we saw the then small Howe Ridge Fire began to spread from 5 acres to over 2000 in a matter of hours. We hiked back to the car to get out where it was parked at the end of a dead end road. We had just driven this road (safely) 3 hours before to get in and it was our only way out, apart from trying to stay ahead of the fire on foot. After we were stopped by the downed tree, we reversed back through all of this and were rescued by two park employees on a boat. They saved our lives. We were not joyriding through a wildfire.

Very dry weather and record-setting high temperatures in the Glacier National Park area in the last several weeks have dried out the fuels and are causing the fire to spread much more rapidly than is typical for the area. Usually firefighters have days to think about rates of spread and to run fire behavior computer models, but this blaze is shortening those time frames making it difficult, for example, to evacuate the west side of Lake McDonald as quickly as needed.

A weather system will bring slightly cooler temperatures, but the frontal passage will increase winds and cause shifts in wind directions. This could significantly affect fire behavior on the southern and western flanks of the fire. Saturday smoke over the fire prevented aircraft from dropping water.

Crews are working around structures in the Fish Creek Campground area and along the Inside North Fork Road to reduce fuels and to set up sprinkler systems. Structure protection efforts continue along the north end of Lake McDonald using sprinkler systems around the remaining structures on North Lake McDonald Road. Personnel are installing hoses and sprinklers to minimize potential fire spread towards the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Fire managers will continue to proactively plan for protection of other areas as the fire progresses.

The Fish Creek Campground area is now under an evacuation order. Evacuation orders remain in place for the North Lake McDonald road (private residences and the Lake McDonald Ranger Station), Lake McDonald Lodge area (all businesses, employees, and private residences), private residences along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and Sprague Creek and Avalanche Campgrounds.

Howe Ridge Fire burns thousands of acres in Glacier National Park

The fire is on the north end of Lake McDonald north of West Glacier, Montana

Above: The Howe Ridge Fire at the north end of Lake McDonald, August 12, 2018. NPS photo.

(Originally published at noon August 16, 2018)

The Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park has burned 3,500 acres at the north end of Lake McDonald 8 miles north of West Glacier, Montana. It started August 11 from a lightning strike and is being “managed”, or herded around, rather than being fully suppressed. The 78 personnel assigned to the fire are protecting structures and utilizing water drops from air tankers and helicopters to slow the spread where needed. However on Wednesday fixed wing aircraft were grounded due to heavy smoke.

Structural protection crews worked Wednesday to reduce risk to buildings at the head of Lake McDonald and Kelly’s Camp.

The time-lapse video of the fire below is very impressive:

The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team, under the command of John Pierson, is onsite and will be taking over management of the fire at 6:00 a.m. Friday. Mr. Pierson’s team is also managing two other fires, the Paola Ridge and Coal Ridge fires.

map Howe Ridge Fire
Map showing the perimeter of the Howe Ridge Fire based on a mapping flight at 10:30 p.m. MDT August 15, 2018.

Area closures and evacuations remain in place. The Going-to-the-Sun Road remains open between St. Mary and Logan Pass. It is closed between the foot of Lake McDonald (near Apgar) and Logan Pass. Apgar Village, Apgar Campground and Fish Creek campground remain open. Most other areas of the park are open.

Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park
Howe Ridge Fire, August 12, 2018. NPS photo.
Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park
Water scooping air tankers work the Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park. Undated NPS photo.


Interview with Kari Greer about her photography exhibit in Missoula

Above: Kari Greer, wildfire photographer, at a reception for the opening of her exhibit at the University of Montana May 21, 2018.

Tuesday we had an opportunity to interview Kari Greer about her “Facing the Inferno” exhibit of wildfire photography. It is on display for three days, May 21-23, during the Fire Continuum Conference at the University of Montana in Missoula in the University Center, room 227.

The photos in the exhibit are borrowed from the main venue showing her photography which was at the Prichard Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Idaho until April 14, 2018.

Kari is a very well respected and skilled wildland fire photographer who has specialized in the field for years.

Drip torches and snow machines

The jobs of some wildland firefighters change dramatically during the winter

These photos were taken over the last couple of days by Shelby Majors during pile burning operations on the Lewis and Clark National Forest west of Augusta, Montana. He said they have been burning landing piles for the past month throughout the Benchmark Corridor that were created during a fuel reduction project started in the winter of 2016-2017.

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow


pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

Thanks Shelby!

Former firefighter convicted second time for arson

The ex-firefighter started 20 fires in 2013 and another in 2016

James Frederick Maw
James Maw

(Originally published at 12:40 p.m. MST January 11, 2018)

Five months after a former seasonal Montana wildland firefighter was given a 40-year suspended sentence for starting 20 wildfires in 2013, he lit another fire in 2016 that burned about an acre on the ranch where he was working.

James Frederick Maw started the first batch of fires in May, 2013. Five of them near York, Montana were managed as the Sweats Complex, with the total number of acres burned listed at 450 with 225 personnel assigned when we reported on the fires and the arrest May 17, 2013. The series of fires in 2013 in the Priest Pass, Spokane Hills, and York areas caused almost $1 million in damages.

The Missoulian reported:

He was arrested [in 2013] in the York-Nelson area in full firefighting gear holding a trigger-operated lighter. He initially said he was a contract firefighter but confessed to starting the fires because he enjoyed the camaraderie of firefighting and needed the financial payoff from fighting fires.

Due to Mr. Maw’s mental health issues his 40-year sentence was suspended by Judge Katherine Seeley.

Below is an excerpt from MTN published November 2, 2015 about the sentencing hearing for the 2013 fires:

However, Lewis & Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and Broadwater County Attorney Corey Swanson told the court that due to the severity of the crimes — 14 arson fires set in May of 2013 in both counties — require some form of incarceration.

“He threatened the lives of the firefighters in this community,” said Gallagher. “People with homes that were in harm’s way out there, and I just think there needs to be a consequence, your honor, beyond just probation.”

The fire service community also called for prison time.

“Mr. Maw’s statement and his memory lapses give no indication he is either sorry for the lives he put at risk or taking responsibility for his actions,” said Chief [Jordan Alexander of Baxendale Fire].

While still on probation for arson, in April 2016 Mr. Maw was arrested for starting the fire on the ranch. He told investigators the chain saw he was using hit a rock, creating a spark which ignited the fire, but his story did not match the facts uncovered.

After delays for another mental health evaluation, on January 8, 2018 the same judge, Katherine Seeley, sentenced him to 35 years in prison.