A few miles north of Lincoln, wildfires are burning more than 9,000 acres along steep slopes full of thick brush and snags.
Matt Conklin is a Forest Service incident commander. He says these fires are among the few that escaped initial attacks to put them out.
Crews totaling around 500 people are now working to control the flames that erupted when lightning struck these mountains about a month ago. Fields of tents, command stations, and mobile kitchens and wash stations, scattered across an area just outside of town along Highway 200, keep the firefighting effort in constant motion.
“Initial attack is the cornerstone of fire suppression in all agencies," Conklin says. "I would say that 90 percent of all fires, once detected, are handled in initial attack. It’s a very small percentage of those fires that go large and go into an extended attack.”
Once wildfires escape an initial attack, like those burning near Lincoln and other areas around the state, they can burn for weeks and cost tens of millions of dollars to contain. And Conklin says, when fires do escape initial attack, they make it harder for fire agencies to send crews out on new initial attacks.
“They have a draw on resources, but they still hold in reserve capacity for initial attack. It’s still all land management agencies' goal to keep fires at initial attack. It’s our best probability of success,” he says.
As the number of larger fires increases, David Hamilton with the State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says it can exhaust some agencies’ abilities to rush out to new fires.
“And eventually we just run out of resources. That has been the case in Montana this year where a lot of fires this year have gotten large because of where they started or because there just wasn’t any resources left to go send to that fire, to start fighting that fire. There are reports in eastern Montana this year that there are fires that were unmanned for a day because there was nobody to send to the fire,” Hamilton says.
Initial attacks on wildfires can save a lot of money if they're successful. The DNRC spends about $15,5 million a year to fund initial attacks on fires across the state, according to DNRC officials. At this point, the state is spending between $1 million and $1.5 million a day fighting the wildfires as the number of larger fires grows.
As much of the Montana sky became a haze with wildfire smoke, the budget for firefighting in the state was cut roughly in half, because of declining state revenue. Although, DNRC officials say money won’t handcuff this year’s firefighting efforts because funding will be pulled from other areas of government. The federal government will also reimburse the state for some of its expenses.
John Huston with DNRC says the dry landscape this season is making it harder to stop smaller fires before becoming larger concerns.
“It’s not so much that we’ve had a bunch of starts, it’s just that the starts we’ve had have gotten big.”
As Huston talks about the summer heat, he occasionally tries to ward off any bad luck coming his way by knocking on the large wooden table he’s sitting next to in an DNRC office in Helena.
Most of the fires this season are getting bigger than in previous years he says, but it’s been a little quieter in this area the last few weeks. He knocks on wood.
While fires are tending to get bigger, the number of new fires actually starting is down this year compared to a 10 year average, he says. He knocks on wood again.
Outside DNRC’s Central Land office in Helena, Huston walks up a gravel path toward a white helicopter resting in an open field nearby.
It’s one of five helicopters the DNRC has around the state to fight and respond to new wildfires. On a day like today — 85 degrees, with the last rain falling more than 40 days ago — Huston says he’d send this helicopter and two engines as soon as they got word of a new fire.
“We’re going to hit it as hard and fast as we need to keep it small," Huston says. "Where in May and June when it's still green, we might just send one engine and that might be enough. Tying in with the local workforce with the volunteer fire departments in this valley and this county is amazing, the force that they can bring. None of us can do this alone, we overlap our protection with the county fire departments in a lot of places. And it works the same with the Forest Service, we all work together pretty well.”
Initial attacks on wildfires are a critical, and often chaotic, part of fighting fires. City, state, tribal and federal agencies are trying to come up with a plan and organize just as they’re learning what’s going on with a fire. Decisions at this point are often made on the hood of a pickup truck.
Huston says there are agreements between agencies to allow firefighters, and some of DNRC’s equipment, to go wherever they are needed.
Although, a point of contention between the state and federal government in recent fire seasons is that the five helicopters that Huston mentioned earlier aren't allowed to fight fire on federal land, except in life-threatening situations.
Huston say’s it’s above his pay grade to get into the details.
Earlier this year, Montana’s Environmental Quality Council sent a letter to the feds urging an end to what was described by the state council as an illogical bureaucratic technicality.
Huston says the DNRC’s goal is to keep 95 percent of wildfires at 10 acres or less.
“And that’s mostly just because large fires cost more money and long durations. So that’s our goal. Doesn't say it always happens, especially years like this one where our fuels are so dry, it’s really tough to do that. We’re probably not going to make our goal this year.”
Mid-August tends to be the peak of Montana’s fire season, as forests and rangelands turn dry with the summer heat. But the state has already been in extreme fire condition for weeks. Critical conditions for fire season began ahead of normal. And while the vast majority of wildfires are still being put out quickly in initial attacks, in this year’s heat, it’s not as easy to stop fire from spreading.