HELENA — While it’s still early in the year, state, federal and local leaders said Tuesday that they’re well on their way to getting ready for Montana’s wildfire season.
“All in all, I think we’re in good shape,” said Rich Cowger, chief of Columbus Fire Rescue and president of the Montana State Fire Chiefs Association. “We’ll just see what Mother Nature does to us, and we can hope for the best.”
Agencies from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to the U.S. Forest Service to county fire wardens were at the State Capitol to deliver the annual fire season briefing to Gov. Greg Gianforte.
As he has in previous years, Gianforte again urged leaders to commit to “aggressive attack” – putting resources into fighting fires early when it’s safe to do so, in an effort to keep them small. Leaders highlighted the number of wildfires they’ve been able to hold under ten acres.
DNRC Fire Protection Bureau Chief Matt Hall said the department is seeking to fill 112 seasonal firefighting positions this year, and they’ve already hired for more than 80% of them. This year, the state was able to increase the starting wage to $17.55 an hour.
“If folks are still interested in a summer job fighting wildland fire, now's the time to get their application in, as only a few positions are left open there,” Hall said.
Hall said seasonal firefighters will begin their training in June, and it generally takes three to four weeks to get them ready.
Leanne Marten, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, said they’ve also worked at increasing firefighter pay at the federal level. She said the USFS has had some challenges, but also success, in hiring. Marten said the agency would go into the year with about 2,000 personnel available.
The Montana National Guard is again ready to assist with wildfire response. Maj. Gen. Pete Hronek, the Guard’s adjutant general, said they would make 1,500 soldiers and airmen available – with more than 300 of them having already completed “red card training,” a wildfire certification program. Hronek said it was valuable to get the training done before there’s an emergency to respond to.
“Usually they have to come in about three or four days just to get equipped and trained before they can even get out,” he said. “They’re much more excited to be trained and ready to go, so they’re off on duty if called to do that.”
All the agencies in attendance said cooperation remains key, as wildfires don’t follow jurisdictional boundaries.
“While we are looking forward into 2023 and what the season will bring, and we have our predictions – regardless, we are ready and we are prepared to work with you, Governor and the state and all federal agencies and tribes, to really work across and meet the needs on the ground when it comes to wildfire suppression,” Marten said.
May is also Wildfire Awareness Month, and leaders are calling on the public to start thinking about how they can get ready.
“We'd ask homeowners and landowners to start taking a look at their property to ensure they're minimizing the vulnerability to wildfire risk that they may face at that location,” said Hall.
You can visit mtfireinfo.org to find more details about how to prepare your home for wildfire, how to be ready in case of an evacuation, and what you can do to help prevent human-caused fires.