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The Whetstone Ridge Fire – Later Part of the Meyers Fire Complex – A Failure in Early Detection and Attack

by Ben Smith (Missoula ’64) |

On the evening of July 13, 2017, I was re- turning to my home SW of Philipsburg, MT, from a fishing trip to the Big Hole River. As I headed west on Highway 38, I spotted a smoke column which I guessed to be 10 to 15 miles away. Since it was so noticeable from the highway, I assumed that it had been called in, (it had been) but I did check the Smokejumper Status Report online (NSA website) when I arrived at home. The status report stated that there were 16 jumpers available in Missoula.

The fire was named the Whetstone Ridge Fire, and since it was 12 miles west of my home, I followed on a daily basis the lack of progress of containing this fire through Inciweb updates. When a public meeting at the Philipsburg High School was announced later in the month, I decided to attend. The first speaker was the Incident Management Team Type 3 leader (a Type 1 team was taking command the next day). When the Type 3 leader asked for questions, I asked him if he was in command during the initial attack phase? He was not. Another Forest Service employee stood and said that he led the initial attack. I was just getting started, asking him some questions about the apparent lack of aggressive initial attack, when I was interrupted by another FS employee saying that I could ask those questions after the meeting was over. Evidently the answers were too embarrassing to be heard by the public.

After the meeting, I did speak with the gentle- man who had identified himself as the leader of the initial attack. I asked him if he was the Pintlar Ranger District FCO and when he looked confused, I said “Fire Control Officer.” He said, “No.” He was the Fire Management Officer. I guess that change in title from my firefighting days kind of says it all.

We were joined by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) deputy Supervisor, and the three of us talked for about twenty minutes. I explained that my concern was the failure to detect this fire when it was a small amount of smoke coming from a burning snag and not a volume of smoke, and that the initial attack failed to contain this fire while it was about 25 acres. They could not give me a good reasons why smokejumpers where not ordered, why retardant was not ordered, and why the fire could not be contained considering the fact that there was a road that ended within a 1/4 mile of where the fire started. Also, as this was one of the early fires of this terrible summer, there should not have been any problem with available resources. Neither could give me reasons that made sense to me.

For the next couple of weeks as we sucked smoke, I read the Inciweb reports with such phrases as: zero percent contained, expected containment mid- October, falling back with containment lines, too dangerous for a direct attack, point protection for the evacuated areas. I got more upset and decided to write a letter to Melany Glossa, the Supervisor of the BDNF. On August 24, 2017, I sent the fol- lowing letter and copied by email our congressional delegation and the Chief of the Forest Service. Since I did not want Melany Glossa blindsided, I emailed her a copy also. The letter was published in the Philipsburg Mail a couple of weeks later:

Dear Ms. Glossa:

I have been following the fire suppression efforts of the Whetstone Ridge Fire (now part of the Meyers Fire Complex) since its discovery on July 13, 2017. The fire is approximately 10 miles to the west of my home. I have questions regarding the actions of BDNF personnel during the discovery and initial attack phases of this fire. I have spoken with several of your coworkers about my concerns, but have not received answers to my questions that make sense. I hope that you can provide clarification.

What was your plan of action to ensure early discovery of the fires that would most probably be spawned by the lightning storm that crossed this area a few days before this fire was discovered? I believe that you receive a daily report from the lightning detection network of where lightning strikes have occurred on the BDNF. Do you patrol the areas of heavy concentrations of lightning strikes by air or ground? I was told that this fire was approximately 25 acres in size when first reported. Why was this fire not discovered earlier?

I saw no urgency in the initial attack of this fire. No smokejumpers were ordered. I checked the smokejumper status report on July 13, and there were 16 smokejumpers available in Missoula. I believe there were jumpers also available at West Yellowstone. No retardant drops were ordered for this fire. As a side note, within the next two weeks after the Whetstone Ridge Fire was discovered, there were three fires discovered within 30 miles of the Whetstone Ridge Fire. The Old Dominion, the Butler, and the Morgan Fires were all attacked with smokejumpers and retardant drops; all three fires are now cold. Why were the three mentioned fires hit with “Shock and Awe” and the Whetstone Ridge Fire was not given the same priority?

Forest Road 5110 ends within 1/4 mile on the same ridgeline that the Whetstone Ridge Fire started. On July 19 the Whetstone Ridge Fire was 374 acres (the Meyers Fire was 69 acres). My question is, with road access to this fire and with only moderate growth for six days, why was this fire not contained?

Finally, can you give me a ballpark cost analysis of what it cost to contain any of the three fires mentioned above and the cost incurred so far of the Meyers Fire Complex. I request just the suppression cost, not the cost of timber lost, the human cost of evacuation, or the health cost to our families and animals of a month of poor air quality alerts.

Ben Smith

cc: Senator Tester, Senator Daines, Rep Gianforte, Mr. Tidwell, Chief US Forest Service, The Philips- burg Mail

I received her answer to my letter on October 1, 2017:

Dear Mr. Smith:

Thank you for the time you spent in service as a firefighter. I know that you, more than most, understand when I say that we are in the middle of a historic fire year in the Northern Rockies. Over a million acres have burned in Montana alone. This has been fed by a variety of factors such as weather and fuel conditions, and is far from a normal fire year. Your interest seems to be focused on our actions around initial attack of the Meyers/Whetstone fires.

We have faced multiple lightning storms this season which produced multiple starts on the Pintler Ranger District and the greater area, as we also assist with fires on state protected lands. All firefighting resources are limited, including aerial detection flights. Our aerial detection flights are fully engaged on patrol after lightning storms but cover a large area. Areas with greater lightning activity are emphasized. We successfully put out 10+ starts from that same lighting storm that started the Meyers/Whetstone fire. Fessler Spring, Fuse Lake, Happy Peak, Swamp, and Princeton are just a few examples of fires which were successfully put out on this district. The Meyers/Whetstone fire area is lightning prone as evidenced by the fire scars and history of initial attacks. It is worth noting that the same storm that started the Meyers/Whetstone fires also started the eight large fires and numerous small fires, on the Lolo National Forest to our west and several fires to our north on the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The Whetstone fire was reported by a member of the public at 20:32 the night of July13th and located by our personnel 10:18 the morning of the 14th. Meyers was discovered by our personnel at 19:42 on July 14, 2017. Air support was ordered the morning of the 14th and actively working the fire with water drops. Full suppression strategy was, and is, my direction for this fire and every other fire this year on the forest.

Many tools including smokejumpers are used for firefighting. We had two hotshot crews on site by 16:00 July 14, 2017. To assume jumpers could have been more successful than the multiple hot- shot crews we had on site is unrealistic. Our initial incident commander was a former smokejumper and is well versed in their abilities and safety issues with jump spots in a forest dominated by dead trees.

At 20:43 July 14, 2017, radio traffic reported Whetstone at 25 acres. Active fire behavior coupled with ongoing lightning in the area and heavy standing snag loading, created an extremely dangerous situation for our firefighters. The strategy on every fire on the forest places the highest regard on firefighter and public safety. Once the Meyers fire was found we ordered air resources for recon. At that time the Meyers fire was approximately 10 acres. Weather continued to impede progress and at 20:50 all resources were pulled off the fires due to lightning. At that time the Whetstone Fire was reported at 60 acres. By 21:57 the night of July 14, 2017, we had ordered up a type III incident management team to take over suppression of both fires

As of now the Meyers/Whetstone fire spanned more than 62,000 acres at a cost of $32 million over the course of 67 days. The Butler Fire you mentioned spanned 17 acres at a cost of approximately $400,000 over seven days.

Questioning the urgency or commitment of our firefighters in the middle of this historic fire season, particularly given the number of fires that have been successfully put out, the dangerous and exhausting conditions, the limited resources, and recent fatalities is disheartening to hear. Perhaps especially disheartening since you have fought fire and understand the difficulty of the task, our historic fuel loading from bug kill, and how extreme fire behavior in early July is well outside our norms. I do under- stand that you are personally impacted by the fires as you live in the community and you are especially eager for these fires to be put to bed. I can assure you that every one of our employees and firefighters impacted by this fire agree. Safely suppressing these fires has been my priority since July and it will continue to be until the last smoke rises.

My understanding is that you have had the opportunity to raise your questions during our public meetings in Philipsburg. Please feel free to contact the Pintler District Ranger, Eric Tomasik, 406-859- 3211 for more immediate questions on the Meyers/Whetstone fires. If you’d like to talk to me about my philosophy around fire suppression, I’d be happy to chat with you as well, 406-683-3973.
Melany Glossa Forest Supervisor

The next day, October 2, 2017, after constructing a timeline using statements from Ms. Glossa's letter and calling the Granite County 911 dispatcher, I called Eric Tomasik, the District Ranger as suggested by Ms. Glossa. After talking with him, I called Ms. Glossa and left a voicemail. After 24 hours of waiting for a telephone call from Ms. Glossa, I decided to move up the "chain of command" by sending an email to Ms, Glossa's boss, Leanne Marten, the Regional Forester of the Northern Region. The following email will explain how unsuccessful my conversation with Edic Tomasik was:

Subject: BDNF Supervisor Letter of 9-22-17
Date: October 3, 2017 at 11:21:54 MST
To: “Marten, Leanne - FS”
Cc: “Glossa, Melany I -FS”

Dear Ms. Marten,

I recently received Ms. Glossa’s letter in answer to my letter of 8-24-17. In her letter she asked that if I had more immediate questions to contact Eric Tomasik, the Pintler District Ranger. I called Eric yesterday and first apologized for not being able to talk in person, as I am in Arizona for the winter and will not return to Philipsburg until the spring. I started our discussion of the Whet- stone Ridge Fire by telling him that Ms. Glossa stated that the Whetstone Ridge fire had been reported by a member of the public at 20:32 on July 13, 2017. I didn’t think this was correct as I had spotted the fire from the Skalkaho Road while returning to my home at approximately 19:30 on July 13th. This is what prompted me to check the smokejumper availably report online when I reached home. Yesterday I called the 911 dis- patcher at the Granite County Sheriff’s Office and they confirmed that a call reporting the fire to the southwest of the Moose Lake area was made at 16:42 on July 13th. They also said the caller had already called the Ranger Station. The dispatcher said she called the Dillon Dispatch Center (DDC) as was her protocol and in fact she had received a message from the DDC a week earlier reminding her of their contact number.

Eric did not know why there was a discrepancy in the report times. I also told him that when I had a conversation with his FMO at the first public meet- ing at the Philipsburg High School, and that the FMO had told me he had spotted the Whetstone Fire while leaving one of the four fires he had al- ready contained that day. I continued my conversation with Eric with some questions on what the plan was for early detection and questions on the initial attack of the fire. It was obvious that he was frustrated with some of my questions but he was always very professional and polite. When I told him that I might write another letter to the Philipsburg Mail he decided that he needed to contact his information officer and Ms. Glossa for guidance on how to proceed with me. I understand “chain of command” as I was a USAF fighter pilot for 20 years and commanded two F-16 squadrons towards the end of my career. When he called me back he told me that Ms. Glossa had told him to tell me that if I wanted any more information that I could file a Freedom of Information Act request. I was stunned and I think most Montanans would agree with me that this smells like a coverup tactic straight from The Swamp.

I called Ms. Glossa’s direct line and left a voice- mail at 14:15 yesterday requesting that she call me. I have not heard back from her, so I guess she is serious about the FOIA statement.

Her letter to me was full of non-answers. For instance my first question was “What was your plan of action to ensure early discovery of the fires that would most probably be spawned by the lightning storm that crossed this area a few days before this fire was discovered?”

I expected an answer from Ms. Glossa (Supv. BDNF) that might have been something like the following:

In early July I contacted my staff, the DDC, and the district rangers of the BDNF and told them unless we received some rain we were in for a very unusual, early, and dangerous fire season.

Unusual circumstances call for unusual plans and execution. I reiterated my direction of full suppression strategy on all fires, and asked for ideas of how we could detect fires as early as possible and contain them while they were small.

As only a small portion of the BDNF has lookout tower coverage, we discussed IR flights, contracted small aircraft flights with a FS observer, road patrols after a lightning storm, and even asking for volunteers from the public to help us with the road patrols when needed.

We put these suggestions into a plan of action which was in effect when the Whetstone Ridge Fire popped up. Unfortunately this one fire slipped through our net, but was reported by a member of the public. Fortunately, with a very aggressive initial attack, we were able to contain both the Whetstone and Meyers Fires at under 100 total acres by July 15th.

Instead, her answer was about IR flights covering large areas, and concentrating on areas of greater lightning activity. She continues to say “the Meyers/ Whetstone Fire area is lightning prone as evidenced by the fire scars and history of initial attacks.” This begs the question as to why this area was not under very close observation.

On the subject of the initial attack of the Whet- stone Fire, she explains to me that smokejumpers are only one of the tools used in firefighting. Yes, but their primary job is initial attack and as far as I am concerned they are the best initial attack tool in our quiver. She goes on to scold me for being unrealistic to believe that smokejumpers could have been more successful than the two hotshot crews that arrived on site (does this mean on the fire line swinging Pulaskis?) at 16:00 on July14th, over 23 hours after the fire was reported.

I would propose a different scenario:

With five hours of light available after the 911 call, we dispatched people by road or air to confirm the location of the fire. With any luck we might have enough daylight left to order up a load of smoke- jumpers. At the worst, they would be able to jump at first light the morning of the 14th, ten hours before the hotshots arrived on site. The initial incident commander that she mentions that was a former smokejumper and is “well versed in their abilities & safety issues...” was the leader of the Type 3 IMT team that wasn’t even ordered until 21:57 on July 14th. Since the fire was reported at only 25 acres at 20:43 on July14th, I am confident that the smoke- jumpers, reinforced by the two Hotshot crews, could have had this fire contained by July 15th.

Ms Glossa scolds me again in her letter for “questioning the urgency or commitment of our firefighters in the middle of a historic fire season...” I have never questioned the urgency or commitment of the firefighters; I am questioning the decisions of their leaders. She did answer the question I asked about the cost differential between one of the nearby fires that were contained by an aggressive initial attack and the Meyers complex - her answer was the Butler Fire cost $400,000 and the Meyers Complex cost $32 million, a differential of $31.6 million. Who were the decision makers that will be held account- able for that huge sum? I understand that fire- fighting resources are not unlimited. I understand that the fire could have blown up shortly after the smokejumpers or ground personnel arrived on site. I understand that I don’t have the big picture that you have and might be missing a part of this story that would completely change what I propose could have happened. If you or a member of your staff could show me why I am wrong, I will be happy to write to the Missoulian, the Philipsburg Mail, and our Congressional delegation and apologize for writing the letter questioning the detection and initial attack decisions for the Whetstone Ridge Fire.

This is the timeline that I constructed. The hours are rounded to nearest hour with zero being the 911 call:

Whetstone Ridge Fire Timeline 2017
• July 13, 16:42 - fire reported by member of public - 0 hour
• July 13, 21:24 sunset - 5 hours
• July 14, 05:55 sunrise - 13 hours
• July 14, 10:18 - “located” by FS personnel - 18 hours
• July 14, morning - air support ordered and actively began water drops - 18 hours
• July 14, 16:00 - Two Hotshot crews on site - does this mean fighting the fire or at base
camp? - 23 hours
• July 14, 19:42 Meyer Fire “discovered” FS personnel. 3 1/2 mi from Whetstone Fire - 27
• July 14, 20:43 - Whetstone reported at 25 acres. Meyers at 10 acres-28 hours
• July 14, 20:50 all personnel pulled off fires due to lightning.- 28 hours
• July 14, 21:57 - ordered Type 3 Incident Management Team - 29 hours
• July 19, 11:09 - Whetstone 374 acres, Meyers 69 acres - 6 days (Inciweb report)

On October 6, I received an email back from the Regional Forester that said: “Thank you for your email. I, or a member of my staff, will respond in the near future.”

The same day, I received a voicemail from Melany Glossa, BDNF Supervisor (obviously the designated staff member) asking to arrange a tele- phone appointment. We arranged the telephone appointment for October 10, 2017.

On that day we spoke for approximately 30 minutes before she had to attend another meeting. The conversation was cordial but without direct or detailed answers to my questions. For instance, I started with asking what actions the Dillon Inter- agency Dispatch Center (DDC) took when they received the fire report. She deflected to another subject. When I asked why smokejumpers were not ordered, her answer was the two Hotshot crews that had been ordered were two of the best. When I pointed out that it took 23 hours for them to reach the fire, there was no comment. When Ms. Glossa described two flights she had taken over the fire, I felt she was truly distressed by the destruction she observed. I might be reading too much between the lines, but I felt that she was not happy with the way this fire was handled from the start, but that she was not going to tell me what went wrong, who was accountable, or what was going to change for the fire season of 2018.

Another fire that received much scrutiny on the lack of an initial attack was the Lolo Peak Fire. There were many letters to the editor of the Missoulian newspaper from locals in the Bitterroot Valley that asked why this fire went so long without an aggressive initial attack. Because of the public outcry, I expected some sort of public statement by Leanne Marten, the Regional Forester, but so far only silence.

I would much prefer to be an advocate of the Forest Service and not a critic. I grew up in a Forest Service firefighting family. My father, Glenn, was a pioneer smokejumper in 1939, jumped the first fire in Region 6 in 1940, and I grew up in late 40s with memories of Nine Mile and Hale Field. My brother, Mike, made a career of the FS with positions from lookout, to smokejumper, to lead plane pilot. My FS paychecks from five fire seasons (Sula pounder, Nine Mile Hotshots, three years as a Missoula jumper) made possible my obtaining a degree and a USAF commission from Montana State. Like most people who write articles for Smokejumper, I can say those were five of the best years of my life.

I ask the Forest Service leadership to make me an advocate again, by making the pendulum swing back away from this “let it burn -good for the health of the forest” policy. Let’s set up a robust early fire detection plan and have lots of two-manners in- stead of these huge fires that cost so much and are so dangerous to fight. Just think about how much thinning, prescribed burns, early detection assets, and initial attack assets the $31.5 million differential between the Butler Fire and the Meyers/Whetstone Ridge Fires could pay for.

In the year 2017 we, as Americans, saw account- ably in many forms, from cabinet officers being fired for using less than $1million of private air travel, to Navy Captains and their bosses being relieved from command for accidents at sea. Where is the account- ability in the US Forest Service for spending $32 million dollars on a fire that should have had the same aggressive initial attack as three other nearby fires that cost less than $400,000 each?