HELENA — Pandemic or not, wildfires will happen this year.
Fire agencies across the nation are working on plans to keep wildland firefighters safe from COVID-19 while still allowing them to perform their essential duties.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) has been working to bring on seasonal workers early to account for quarantine and other health precautions.
“Our focus right now is very much on bringing our workforce on healthy, and keeping them healthy once they get here,” said DNRC Fire Protection Bureau Chief Mike DeGrosky.
Fire camps are often packed with people in close living space who share amenities.
The DNRC is in the process of developing new policies for fire camps and crews to limit person-to-person contact. They’ve also been working on seeing which administrative roles can be done from home or an office rather than in the field.
Montana saw a couple of wildland fires just last week. Fortunately, the fires were manageable, and in-state resources were able to contain them.
Larger fires almost always require the aid from crews and resources located out of state or internationally. DeGrosky says the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated large scale mobilizations.
“Wildland fire in Montana is inherently interagency, but that’s especially true for large fires,” explained DeGrosky. “Montana has not imposed any restrictions that would keep firefighters from coming in, but other states and agencies are putting some restrictions on the travel of their employees.”
“We’re anticipating that outside resources might not be as available as they’ve been in the past,” he continued. “So, we’re very much focused on succeeding on initial attack, keeping fires small, and trying to avoid the need to bring in resources from outside.”
The public is encouraged to use this time to make sure their home and property are fire-safe including raking dead needles and creating a defensible space go a long way to helping protect their property.
“We need to remember that 64% of homes in Montana are in identified high-risk interface, and 85% of our forests are considered especially vulnerable to fire,” explained DeGrosky. “Right now, is a good opportunity to go look around your property and do some things that will protect your home.”
Both the U.S. Forest Service and Montana DNRC are constantly working to minimize risk to people and property through mitigation efforts, but those efforts can only help so much.
DeGrosky says more than ever, people need to take the utmost caution when using fire.
“In the peak of the summer, a fire someone cause can mean 600-800 people are exposing themselves to each other and potentially spreading [the] virus,” said DeGrosky. “It’s especially important the public is careful with fire right now.”
DeGrosky added that it’s only April and there is a lot more fire season left.
The U.S. Forest Service Northern Region, R1, is conducting an immediate hiring opportunity for additional fire positions for the 2020 fire season. Approximately 60-to-80 positions including engine crew member positions, handcrew positions, general forestry technician and forestry aid positions are available.
More information about the positions can be found here.