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COVID impacts on 2020 fire season

Posted at 7:00 PM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-16 22:36:24-04

HELENA — On Tuesday, Governor Steve Bullock hosted the annual Wildfire Season Briefing with local, state, tribal and federal partners.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center, the interagency group that coordinates wildfire and disaster response, has been comparing current weather patterns to previous years.

Meteorologist Michael Richmond says a snow pack and melt has been favorable, but if we have a dry July conditions could make for significant fire potential.

COVID-19 remains a serious concern for fire suppression agencies, and has led to the creation of new protocols for wildland teams and fire camps.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s COVID-19 or the fire season, we will continue to work to protect lives, communities and natural resources across Montana,” said Bullock. “For this wildfire season our mission now includes protecting our firefighters, staff and the public against the spread of COVID-19.”

DNRC has developed policies with health experts and other fire agencies to limit person to person contact.

“Almost every aspect of being in a fire crew on being at a fire camp will look different than previous years,” said Chief Mike DeGrosky, DNRC Fire Protection Bureau. “As we learn more about COVID and COVID precautions, we’ll continue to adapt our guidance to ground teams.”

Interaction of fire personnel will be limited to the team’s “home unit.” Meals are being served directly to units, and many administrative roles will be conducted off-site.

Montana got its first big test of the new COVID protocols this week with the Lump Gulch Fire.

“We actually got to practice what we were talking about, which was each fire engine was its own unit. They didn’t interact with the other fire engines, but everybody was in communication and we really were protective,” said DNRC Director John Tubbs.

Tubbs says Montana is doing everything possible to ensure firefighter safety while still allowing them to do their jobs.

“We can not lose that resource,” said Tubbs. “We can not have our firefighting resources go down this summer, so we’re being super protective and hope that is sufficient to get us into the fall and the winter snows.”

Larger fires almost always require the aid from crews and resources located out of state. The pandemic has complicated large scale mobilizations which mean the state.

Tubbs says the State’s goal is always to put out a fire quickly, but now more than ever they’re focusing on the initial attack of a fire.

Air tanker resources will remain available for immediate deployment, as it is easier to keep pilots and crews isolated.

Montana also remains committed to providing fire fighting support to our neighbors that need it.

“We have survived because other people have come to our aid,” said Tubbs. “Now with COVID, we recognize there is an increased risk and we’ve got to manage that, but we can’t step away from our partners and our commitments to help each other.”

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.