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Aerial Observer Say Fire Response Fast/Effective

by Greg Beck Daily Inter Lake.com |

The truth can sometimes be elusive, from afar. But sometimes one gets a “ringside seat” to the truth of events. Having had such a close-up view, I would like to respond to the several “let it burn” comments I have been reading lately in the Inter Lake, regarding the Flathead National Forest’s supposed response to the recent wildland fires in this historic fire season of 2015.

I was “hired back” by the Flathead National Forest the second week of August as an aerial observer to fly the forest (usually twice daily) in a small fixed wing aircraft to report new fires to the dispatch center, size them up, and recommend initial attack action, along with other aircraft specific tasks related to ongoing fires.

I say “hired back” because I was a wildland firefighter or fire manager for 37 seasons prior to this one, ending my career on the Flathead National Forest as an assistant fire management officer on the Tally Lake District in 2003. During my 37 years I was involved in a number of other “historic” fire seasons, some on the Flathead, but primarily as a Flathead Hot Shot and McCall Smokejumper when we were repeatedly sent to the regions of the U.S. that were experiencing the same kind of fire season the Flathead saw this summer.

So I had perhaps the best seat in the house (airplane), so to speak, to watch and listen to how the Flathead National Forest responded to new fires and fought existing ones. I called in roughly 40 fires, primarily on the Flathead Forest, so witnessed how the forest responded to those, and other ongoing fires, and in absolutely no case did I see a “just let it burn” response. Just the opposite, the Flathead National Forest dispatched every resource that was available.

One must understand that because California and the Pacific Northwest were overwhelmed with numerous large fires before the bulk of the Flathead’s fires occurred, the vast majority of available national resources had been allocated to those fires in other regions. So there just weren’t a lot of national resources available.

The Flathead had to “make do” with the limited resources it had on hand and those few it could obtain, to deal with an intense, and at times overwhelming, fire season.
At this writing, the Flathead Forest has had 112 fires for the season, and to my knowledge only four of them exceeded 1,000 acres. The vast majority of them were extinguished at less than 5 acres in size. In my book, that is an incredible success story, and it speaks to the outstanding initial response to multiple fires being ignited simultaneously by lightning storms, with limited resources to suppress them.

The teamwork between dispatch, fire managers, firefighting resources on the forest, and local and other resources brought in to help with the effort, etc., was exceptional.

Having fought over 500 fires in my career, throughout the U.S. and often in these kinds of years, I’ve had many opportunities to watch various national forests deal with a similar scenario, and NEVER have I seen a more effective response than this.

A couple of examples (and I could list many, many more):
The Dry Lake fire, started by lightning in August in the Swan Valley, was approximately a half acre when I called it in to dispatch. Engine crews were immediately dispatched. Because there were structures in the area, and even though the fire was burning away from them and would have eventually burned into the Swan Range (let it burn?), I recommended that one single engine air tanker (SEAT) be ordered to put retardant along the fire edge closest to the nearest structure 400 yards away, in case the wind shifted. The smaller “SEAT” air tankers were the only ones available due to the fleet of larger air tankers being deployed on other fires throughout the West.

The fire managers, in conjunction with dispatch, ordered four “SEATS,” a helicopter with a bucket for dropping water, a fixed wing air attack plane to coordinate all these aircraft, in addition to the two engine crews that were already in route — everything they could get basically. As it turned out, the two engine crews and the helicopter dropping water contained the fire, so the SEATS and air attack were rerouted to other fires. The fire was quickly and completely extinguished. Does that response sound like a “let it burn” response?

Another example would be the Bear Creek Fire, which ended up being the largest fire on the forest, in the Spotted Bear District. From the moment this fire was detected (it was one of more than a dozen lightning starts on the same day), every available resource was employed to suppress it. Ground crews, multiple helicopters with buckets, “SEATS,” air attack, etc., were deployed. Again, hardly a “let it burn” reaction.

The fire was held in check for days, but finally a combination of high temperature, low humidity, and substantial wind caused it to spot over containment lines, become a wind-driven monster, and at that point no amount of resources could stop it.

Comments have been made that not enough was done, but having carried the casket of my best smokejumper friend who was killed by a similar type of wind-driven fire in Colorado 20 years ago (along with 13 others), would the naysayers really like to have that scenario play out by putting people in front of a running crown fire in an impossible situation?

The Flathead National Forest staged a D7 bulldozer, two operators, and a dozer boss at the supervisor’s office for days, to be ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice to any new fire start that escaped initial attack.

Engine crews were constantly on patrol each day to be as close as possible to any new fire that was called in. Every citizen report of a fire was thoroughly checked out. Dispatch, fire crews, fire managers, and many people called into the fight from various Forest Service offices (who were not normally fire folks), the excellent pilots at Red Eagle aviation (Dave especially), and numerous others worked long hours for days on end, as an effective team whose accomplishments in this brutal fire year were extraordinary. Hardly a “let it burn” reaction.

If any naysayers really want to start assigning blame, I suggest you start with the “eco-Alinskys” who have used our court system so effectively, for so many years, to delay or kill fuel treatment projects proposed and developed by the Flathead National Forest, often with years of effort.

Initial attack in areas that have been responsibly treated mechanically or with prescribed fire is far more effective than in areas that have not been treated. Protection of values at risk (structures, municipal watersheds, etc.) is far easier when adjacent fuels have been treated. I have observed this firsthand during 38 summers of firefighting.

Perhaps, in addition, a plate full of cookies and a thank you note to the closest Forest Service office would be a small “thank you” to all the folks involved in this year’s incredible effort fighting fires on the Flathead. The couple of plates full that showed up at dispatch in August with said note certainly made my day.