Wildfire season is coming, and Montana says it’s ready

Wildfire season is coming, and Montana says it’s ready

Montana officials said Wednesday that the state is well prepared for the upcoming wildfire season, although it is too early to predict what the coming months might bring.

Amanda Kaster, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources, said “it’s just too early to say” what the forecast for the season will be, but she plans to brief the governor in the coming weeks.

At a news conference at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Aviation Support Center in Helena, Gov. Greg Gianforte said the state’s approach to wildfires will focus on two main objectives: aggressive initial attacks on all fires and active forest management.

Amanda Kaster

Amanda Kaster, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources.

THOM BRIDGE, independent record

“In every fire, we must respond with one goal: to extinguish the fire as quickly and as safely as possible. Regardless of where the fire starts, we must apply the same operating principle, which is aggressive attack,” Gianforte said.

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Citing the increase in forest area under management by the DNRC to 36,000 last year from 11,000 in 2020, Gianforte called for more forest management projects.

“We must also continue to work together to prevent wildfires. We can minimize the risk of wildfires by being good managers of our land, better managing our forests and reducing fuel loads,” Gianforte said.

Governor Greg Gianforte

Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks during a news conference regarding state and federal agency preparedness for the 2024 wildfire season, May 8, inside the Montana DNRC Aviation Facility in Helena.

THOM BRIDGE, independent record

He pointed to House Bill 883 from the last legislative session, which allocated $60 million over the biennium to the DNRC to conduct more forest management projects. Projects include fuel reduction and mitigation, forest restoration, forest management, support for collaborative groups, and the purchase and development of additional fire suppression equipment for local governments in cooperatives county, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Gianforte said projects under the Good Neighbor Authority have increased timer supplies to markets and improved forest health. GNA allows the U.S. Forest Service and state forest agencies to enter into agreements to manage forests.

Tim Garcia, deputy regional forester for U.S. Forest Service Region 1, said “we have made incredible progress toward fuels risk mitigation across the state, in and around the seven national forests of the Montana” under the aegis of the GNA.

Shawn Thomas, administrator of the DNRC Forestry and Trust Lands Division, said a lot of mitigation work is also being done in eastern Montana under HB 883, but the lack of good nearby markets for felled trees makes them more expensive.

Matt Hall, who is the chief of the DNRC Fire Protection Bureau, said his department’s current goal is to recruit and train personnel to fight wildfires this year. Because of updates to the state employee pay plan, Hall said the starting pay for wildland firefighters will be $19.05 an hour in July, up from about $17.50.

“I know we still have a number of open jobs posted today, but we plan to fully fill those positions over the next few weeks with all of our seasonal staff,” Hall said.

Paul Cerda, regional fire management manager for the National Park Service, said they are working to hire for the season, but finding affordable and available housing for employees is a challenge. Its vacancy rate is 6%. Legislation to increase pay for federal firefighters has stalled in Congress.

NPS will also host two Montana Conservation Corps teams, one in Yellowstone and one in Glacier, to work on fuels mitigation.

Bryce Rogers, regional fire management manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in recent years its vacancy rate has been 60 percent, but he hopes this year will be better in terms of hiring. He added that housing is also an issue when recruiting potential employees.

Chris Dorrington

Chris Dorrington, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

THOM BRIDGE, independent record

Chris Dorrington, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said his agency used grant money to add new air quality monitoring stations in Choteau and Glendive, and that a Another location will soon be available in Glasgow. There are 24 permanent monitoring sites statewide and five temporary monitors for emergency employment, in addition to monitoring in schools statewide. Around 80 schools have sensors and 30 schools have installed an active sensor.

More equipment

Hall said the DNRC Equipment Development Center has produced 14 Type 5 fire engines and is delivering them to Beaverhead, Blaine, Cascade, Chouteau, Custer, Fergus, Gallatin, Golden Valley, Meagher, Musselshell, Phillips counties , Powder River, Sweet Grass and Stillwater. .

Firefighting aircraft

Firefighting aircraft housed at the Montana DNRC aviation facility in Helena on May 8.

THOM BRIDGE, independent record

Last year, the DNRC added a mix of air and ground assets, including two Type 2 attack crews, an infrared mapping detection platform, three helicopters and five Type 3 air tankers. In July this year, the agency will add two Type 2 hand crews and one Type 1 tank helicopter.

Brigadier General Renea Dorvall of the Montana National Guard said they have 22 aircraft and numerous ground rolling stock positioned throughout the state, as well as 2,400 personnel capable of helping. Four hundred members of the Guard have their certification card to become a wildland firefighter.

Holly Michels is the head of the Montana State News Bureau. You can reach her at [email protected]