Montana Outdoors

May 2, 2008

I’m afraid it has begun

In a rural area something that is missing is infrastructure, some would say by definition. Others might say that the infrastructure isn’t exactly missing, but those who live there often are the infrastructure. I was reminded of that yesterday when a call came over my pager inviting those of us who belong to the Rural Fire Department to go to the scene of a brush fire that was trying to get up into the timber. A house was near but not immediately threatened. In an urban area a fire call is answered by a professional team of firefighters: in a rural area it is answered by those of us who volunteer.

Despite the cold temperatures of a lingering winter and the fact that this area received far more than normal snowfall during the winter, the lower valley areas are already very dry and I’m afraid (I sure hope I’m wrong!) that the fire season started yesterday.

Eight miles from town as we approached mile marker 67, the dispatcher’s location for the fire, we could see a column of smoke coming from a shelf area a few hundred feet above the highway and off to the right a half mile or so. The voice of our chief who was in the lead truck came over the radio informing us where to turn off to get into that area.

Thanks to some good thinking and planning by the senior staff in our department, we have in our arsenal three wildland fire engines (brush trucks) which are light trucks which carry 300 gallons of water, a pump system which injects foam, creating a water-foam mix that is incredibly efficient and room for extra hose and all our other gear. The 4X4 F350 that I drove today had all it could do with all six wheels spinning to climb a steep trail up the mountainside to get into the right position for delivering our foam to the head of the fire.

After three and a half hours with crews working from our brush trucks, a crew from the state DNRC and a crew from the USFS the fire was out and being mopped up. We used over 1500 gallons of water and foam, filling each truck twice from our 3000 gallon water tender also near the scene, got filthy and smelly and had a wonderful time. Sometimes it’s fun to be a part of the infrastructure!

As far as I was concerned, the best reward came just as we were wrapping everything up when about 20 Bighorn sheep strolled out into a small clearing a hundred yards away and stood looking at us as if to say “thanks for protecting our home”.


  1. With all the moisture you’d think the fires would be less of a threat this year. I send you a big thank you for being a part of the team protecting these lands. The sheep and I thank you very much.

    (But no photo of that thankful bunch – don’t you mount your camera on your helmet???) 🙂


    Comment by Bo — May 2, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  2. I do hope you are wrong about this season, but I see the dryness on my land and woods. I was gone from Montana this past winter but knew of the snow from my home caretaker so was surprised at the dryness.

    I had my woods logged for fire safety last spring…let’s hope for a lot of rain in May and June!

    As a rural home and property owner – thanks to you and all rural volunteer and paid firefighters!


    Comment by Ann from Montana — May 2, 2008 @ 9:44 am

  3. Kudos to you for doing this very important work! In Argentina I was surprised to find that ALL of the firefighting departments, including the one serving Buenos Aires’ 11,000,000 inhabitants, are volunteer.

    I bought a nifty “Bomberos Voluntarios Argentina” cap to support them in La Boca, my second support-the-volunteer-firefighters souvenier, the other being a T-short from the Cabo San Lucas squad.


    Comment by Adam R. Paul — May 2, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  4. Bo,

    At the moment the fire threat in the high country is minimal and we’ll have to see about later.

    You reminded me of something. I haven’t taken my camera on Rural Fire incidents for fear of getting it damaged: things often get pretty hectic. But I have an older one that I can sure stuff in somewhere and get a few shots if time and duties permit!


    Comment by montucky — May 2, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  5. Ann,

    Thanks for the visit! Relatively speaking, we’re neighbors! (I live just west of Plains.)

    There has been a lot of speculation about the fire season this year especially with the wonderfully wet winter we had, but it really all boils down to the temps and precipitation in July and August. Once it really dries out and the temps get high, all bets are off!

    I’m really glad you took some measures to improve the defensibility of your home from wildfire! I see far too many in this area that I just know we wouldn’t be able to save if there’s much of a wildfire.


    Comment by montucky — May 2, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

  6. Adam,

    I had an article about volunteer departments here in the US and the statistics were surprising. I believe it was around 75% of all fire departments here are staffed by volunteers and there were only two thousand-some paid departments in the whole country.

    There is a growing problem the last few years though with getting enough volunteers and that is being exacerbated here with the largest landowner in Montana (Plumb Creek Timber) now starting to develop their lands and make the whole problem worse. With lots more homes being built in the trees, it not only adds to the burden, but the risk to the firefighters goes up about twenty times.


    Comment by montucky — May 2, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

  7. excellent work I really hope that this was simply an aberration and that you actually get a lot of rainfall; keeping things moist and whole. You had mentioned to Ann in your post about creating a line of defense (we really have too….) Do you guys send out literature & information on that issue? or is it just vastly ignored?


    Comment by aullori — May 2, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

  8. Our department does not have information to send out or the staff to do it, but the state is quite active doing that and even offers some incentives for those who want to make their homes more safe. I know some folks pay attention to it and act on it but clearly others do not.


    Comment by montucky — May 2, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

  9. RE information about fire safey… As montucky said, the state sends info. I am a support/auxillary member of my volunteer fire district. While we don’t mail info, a prominent reader board in the district displays info as the season progresses. And this is common in all of the fire districts. Additionally the local newspapers run extensive articles based on info from the fire districts – they also run articles on not putting food/garbage out that attracts bears or other wildlife…another oft ignored caution.

    Some people listen – but another factor is economic. In many cases, mine included, there was not enough sellable timber removed to pay for all of the cleanup needed. I borrowed to pay for the work. There are grants/incentives available but I felt I needed to get the work done sooner than waiting for the “red tape” allowed. I don’t regret doing it – not for my home which is insured and replaceable, but for the woods. I have a bit over 8 acres and 4 of it is old growth timber including 2 giant Ponderosa Pines – those are NOT replaceable. The woods is more defensible and healthier as the good and healthy trees now have more room, more sun, more water.

    That is the other issue – the “health” of a woods is rarely discussed. And many – particularly newcomers – have a “problem” cutting down a tree – as in they don’t want to…not realizing that there are other issues in addition to fire safety.


    Comment by Ann from Montana — May 3, 2008 @ 6:33 am

  10. I’m glad that you took good, positive action. That’s certainly the intelligent thing to do! I sure wish everyone would do that! I’m also happy to hear that you work with your fire district! Good for you!


    Comment by montucky — May 3, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

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