Bullock declares state of emergency

By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Managing Editor

While fires raged across California, Washington and Oregon over the past few months, states in the Northern Rockies were experiencing a relatively average fire year. Then, during the week of Aug. 10, widespread and intense thunderstorms walloped the area.

Hundreds of new fires were reported in the Northern Rockies geographic area, which includes Montana, North Dakota, and northern Idaho, Yellowstone National Park, and a portion of South Dakota. The blazes that escaped initial attack quickly grew into large incidents, according to a press release from the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center, at EBS press time Aug. 19, reported 30 large fires, many of which are multi-fire complexes with incident management teams regulating multiple incidents. The Thompson Fire in Glacier National Park was deemed the largest single fire at 13,932 acres.

Smoke billows from the Eustis Fire south of Toston, Mont., on Aug. 14. The blaze grew to 8,721 acres before firefighters fully contained the fire on Aug. 19.

Smoke billows from the Eustis Fire south of Toston, Mont., on Aug. 14. The blaze grew to 8,721 acres before firefighters fully contained the fire on Aug. 19.

In southwest Montana, the Eustis Fire near Toston was reported on the morning of Aug. 14, approximately 50 miles northwest of Bozeman. Within 72 hours and fanned by erratic winds, the blaze had exploded to more than 8,000 acres burning grass and brush and causing a 24-hour power outage.

The rapid increase in fire activity prompted Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to issue a state of emergency on Aug. 16, and make resources available from Canada as well as the Montana Air National Guard.

Resources responding to smaller fires in their respective locales combined with overtaxed national resources battling fires across the West are contributing to a challenging position for fire managers.

“There’s a lot of fire on the landscape, not only here, but in

Dillon Delahunt had been fighting the Eustis Fire, south of Toston, Mont., for more than 10 hours when this portrait was taken on Aug. 14.

Dillon Delahunt had been fighting the Eustis Fire, south of Toston, Mont., for more than 10 hours when this portrait was taken on Aug. 14.

California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere,” said NRCG Chair Ken Schmid. “Resources are stretched thin with needs everywhere, but we’re working hard to find ways to meet the need.”

The challenge, according the press release, will be allocating resources – aircraft, crews, engines and heavy equipment – to existing fires, and still maintain capacity to quickly respond to new fires.

The NRCG is also tasked with prioritizing incident needs and allocating a limited number of resources – requests for which exceed what’s currently available, Schmid said.

“Our teams understand the situation and they are planning accordingly,” he said. “We are in constant communication with them to talk about resource needs [and] availability, and configuring the resources they do have for maximum benefit.”

A few small fires have been reported in Big Sky this summer but nothing that’s been out of control thus far, according to Big Sky Fire Department Chief Bill Farhat. He warns, though, that warm temperatures and little rain of late have contributed to a growing danger.

“Our fuels are getting dryer as we speak,” Farhat said, adding that Stage 1 fire restrictions are in place in Madison County, and in the Big Sky Fire District portion of Gallatin County.

“If we have anything that looks like smoke up here, we get 10 phone calls and we’re trying to avoid that,” Farhat said. “Only recreational fires are allowed in Gallatin County – nothing larger than 36 inches in diameter.”

Depleted wildland firefighting resources are another reason these restrictions are in place, Farhat added. “Everybody’s tapped out right now.”

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Farhat’s tips for staying safe
-This time of year, eliminate any outside fires if possible until we get significant rains again.
-Register your cell phone with Gallatin County at “readygallatin.com” Click on “Community Resources, then go to “Public Warning,” then “Emergency Preparedness Notification System.” Your phone will get emergency messages whether you’re in Big Sky or not.
-Don’t allow high grasses near your home.
-Don’t pile wood or other materials that can burn near your home.
-Use common sense in disposal of any smoking material.
-Make sure any fire or smoking material is completely out. It must be cool to the touch before you leave a fire or dispose of smoking material.