HELENA — Fuel, oxygen and a heat source. Those are the required ingredients for a wildfire.
On Tuesday, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) gave their new wildlands firefighters crews a first-hand look at wildfire behavior.
The DNRC’s Central Land Office fire unit conducted a live fire training exercise north of Helena which included fire personnel, fire engines and helicopters.
The goal of the training was to simulate a wildfire under controlled circumstances, allowing crews to practice initial attack.
Over the last month personnel have been taking courses to learn and refresh their wildland firefighting techniques.
For around a dozen of the firefighters, Tuesday’s exercise was their first experience working the line of a wildfire.
“This gives them the opportunity to actually see what it’s going to be like when we go onto a real fire situation before we actually get there,” said Jesse Thomas, DNRC incident commander. “We’re able to slow down a little bit and just kind of go over everything that they’re going to need to know.”
Wildland firefighting is a lot different than fighting fire in a city.
Hydrants don’t usually exist out in the wilderness, and due to the remote nature of many fires crews will often have to hike in to get access.
It can be grueling work hiking into steep terrain carrying around 60 pounds of gear, then knocking down trees and digging a fire line. But it’s through that work that ground teams are able to limit and control a fire’s spread.
Crews tested all of those skills Tuesday, and practiced calling in and coordinating a water drop from a DNRC helicopter.
Wildland firefighting will be different this year due to COVID-19.
The pandemic has led to new policies this year limiting personal contact, and impacting the mobilization of out of state resources.
Interaction of fire personnel will be limited to the team’s “home unit.” At fire camps, meals are being served directly to units, and many administrative roles will be conducted off-site.
More than half of wildfires in Montana are human caused. With only six hotshot crews located in the state, firefighters say it’s more important than ever to use extra caution with fire.
“We always like people to be out recreating, but just be careful,” said Chris Spliethof, Helena Unit fire management officer. “We ask that every year, this year is no different. We'll still be there responding to the best of our ability, but it just might be tougher to get resources from outside.”
Around 64 percent of homes in Montana are in a identified high risk area for wildfire, and 85 percent of the state’s forests are considered especially vulnerable to fire.
The public is encouraged to make sure their home and property is fire safe. Steps like raking dead needles and creating a defensible space go a long way to helping protect property.