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State, federal and local leaders gather for annual briefing on Montana’s wildfire season

HELENA — Despite a strong storm that brought snow to Helena on Wednesday, Montana’s wildfire season is not far away. State, federal and local administrators gathered in Helena to talk about their preparations, during Gov. Greg Gianforte’s annual fire season briefing.

“It’s a great day to do a firefighter briefing, given the weather outside,” Gianforte joked.

The leaders gathered at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation fire support hangar at the Helena Regional Airport. There, the DNRC maintains firefighting helicopters before they are sent into the field before the season begins.

DNRC helicopters

Jonathan Ambarian

Matt Hall, chief of the DNRC Fire Protection Bureau, said the department plans to hire just over 100 seasonal firefighters this year. He said they would be able to offer a starting salary of $19.05 – higher than in previous years – thanks to the new state employee compensation plan.

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

The DNRC also cooperates closely with local firefighters. Hall said he built 14 new wildfire engines this year and is distributing them to agencies in Beaverhead, Blaine, Cascade, Chouteau, Custer, Fergus, Gallatin, Golden Valley, Meagher, Musselshell, Phillips, Powder River, Sweet Grass. and Stillwater Counties.

Additionally, Hall said DNRC is considering contracting for another “Type 1” helicopter, a heavy-duty helicopter that can carry about 2,000 gallons of water.

“Today, we are on track to have firefighting resources ready and available for the 2024 fire year, and we look forward to working with our partners in Montana to increase state fire preparedness. forest and better serve the citizens of Montana,” he said.

Forest Service Fire Truck

Jonathan Ambarian

“Partnership” was the key word for all the agencies present on Wednesday. Tim Garcia, deputy regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, spoke about their close cooperation with the state on projects such as the Good Neighbor Authority’s forest management projects.

“This is fundamentally based on the trust and relationships we have with our state partners in the DNRC,” he said. “We’re encouraging and asking our line officers to really make sure that we have those people – that everyone – at the table as we go into fire season so that, again, we have that early communication and frequent.

Garcia said the USFS is also optimistic it will get closer to its firefighter staffing goals this year, despite challenges such as the cost of housing.

Leaders said it’s still early to know what type of fire season Montana might experience this year, but they are prepared.

“People always say, ‘Well, what’s fire season going to be like?’ “And we often say, ‘Well, we’ll tell you in October,'” said Adriane Beck, director of the Missoula County Office of Emergency Management and a representative for the Montana County Fire Wardens Association. “I say this with some confidence, because whatever this fire season brings, know that your counties are ready. Your county’s firefighters work year-round in coordination with the state.

Briefing on the Gianforte fires

Jonathan Ambarian

Since taking office, Gianforte has reiterated two main priorities for the state’s response to wildfires: aggressively tackling fires in the early stages to limit them and expanding the scale of active forest management work . He reiterated both points on Wednesday.

“Together we can continue to build healthier, more resilient forests, but it will take all of us,” he said.

May is also Wildfire Awareness Month. State leaders are encouraging residents to take steps to prepare for fire. You can find more information at mtfireinfo.org.

“We can’t prevent all wildfires from starting, but we can control our actions and our preparation,” Gianforte said.