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Montana firefighters prepare for "above average" fire season during COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday

Posted at 7:11 PM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-16 21:11:38-04

BILLINGS — Montana's annual fire season briefing with the governor went virtual Tuesday, with local, state and federal fire management agencies preparing for an elevated fire season and social distancing to minimize firefighters' risk of COVID-19 infection.

The annual meeting is usually held in the Capitol Building in Helena, but this year to keep up social distancing, state and federal fire management agencies met online from locations across the state.

Representatives from the Montana/Dakotas Bureau of Land Management checked into the meeting from the BLM fire station in Billings.

John Mehlhoff, BLM Montana/Dakotas state director, said some of his crews have already been fighting fires in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Alaska. The crews have brought back lessons on how to fight fire during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've been dealing with large, complex fires for years and years, and we will do it again this year. We will just layer in that COVID-19 issue to be as safe and careful and distanced as we can from one another. If we crack a COVID-19 case, someone gets exposed or has the virus, we will immediately deal with that. We have protocols in place to do that. We think we're ready,” Mehlhoff said.

Representatives attended from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and others.

COVID-19 is near the top of officials' minds as the state heads into the 2020 fire season, which has been predicted to be a bad one. But firefighter safety is number one, according to officials.

"Last year was a non-event. We don’t think that will happen this year. We think that these crews will be working hard and adapting as much as necessary to be able to do this work as safely and as carefully as we can. We have COVID-19 on our minds always, but we never lose sight of the fact that managing and fighting fires is tricky business. It can be dangerous to our personnel. So we keep the safety of our people foremost in every decision," Mehlhoff said.

Many agencies work together across the state and country to put out wildfires, with resources often being shipped out to other states or even countries. Aaron Thompson is the state fire management officer for the Montana/Dakotas BLM, and he works to make sure BLM crews work together with other agencies.

Thompson said plans to fight fire during COVID-19 are ready to go across all firefighting agencies.

“All the agencies have good resources, good capabilities. We have plans in place and if we follow our plans, we’re going to be in good shape. We’ve had a lot of great communication with all or our inter-agency partners through this whole process over the last several months over how we’re going to respond to fires in a COVID-19 situation," Thompson said.

Part of the plan is to have firefighters do work in their local groups and not mix with others. Another focus for firefighters this season is the initial attack and trying to put the fire out quickly.

"We intend to be aggressive this year on initial attack. … We’re going to use aircraft as much as we can. We have the capacity to do that this year. Hopefully we catch fires and keep anything from getting large. That said, it’s a certainty that it will happen. Mother Nature wins every battle when it comes to wind and weather and we have to be prepared for that, but we are," Mehlhoff said.

If a fire does grow large enough to require an inter-agency response, the fire camp to house and feed personnel will look much different from previous years. According to Thompson, some positions will be moved off site or to a virtual format. Firefighters will also no longer line up to get food. Instead, they will grab their food and immediately go back to their home crew.

Thompson said the BLM groups will use computers and smartphones to check in firefighters instead of having them sign in with pen and paper.

“I think we’ve learned a lot. We’re adapting. I think that’s the other success and takeaway from the last several months of planning is the adaptability and flexibility that we have in fire season. We all know that we need to be nimble and take it one day at a time going into the season," Thompson said.

In the past, BLM has let naturally sparked fires with little threat to life and property burn in areas to rejuvenate the soil. Firefighters would monitor the fire to make sure it didn't get out of hand. Mehlhoff said that practice likely won't be done this year.

"This year, we’re going to be less likely to do anything of that sort simply because of the fact that managing fires can lead to larger long-term exposure of crews and we want to limit that," Mehlhoff said.

As far as the availability of resources, Thompson said he thought the state as a whole was in good shape. But that could change if more fires pop up over the summer.

“The resource availability right now is good. We’re prepared for an average fire season. As multiple geographic areas have multiple fires going on, there’s always resource competition. So, when we get to preparedness levels four and five we’re always going to be short of some resource. So we’ll never have enough resources for every fire and that’s where we have to strategically prioritize which fires get the resources based on the life, property and resource value," Thompson said.

Everyday folks can take steps to make sure the state and federal resources aren't overstretched with fire calls this summer.

Thompson said campers should make sure their fire is all the way out and cold to the touch. Farmers and ranchers who need to burn land should contact their local authorities to inform them of the burn. Everyone should be aware of the weather and fuel conditions as well, he said.