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Wildfire Resources Strained As Wildfire Season Starts Earlier And Lasts Longer

Thick gray smoke billows over mountains on the side of the road.
Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Radio
Smoke coming from the Robertson Draw Fire Tuesday, June 15th.

The afternoon of Sunday, June 13, was a normal one for Red Lodge, Montana's Fire Chief Tom Kuntz until he got a phone call.

"The call came in for smoke in the area of the Robertson draw," he recalled.

The Robertson Draw is along the Montana and Wyoming border. In his 30-year career of fighting fires, Kuntz said he had never seen a large wildland fire in the beginning of June.

"Our expectation was that this would be a fire that could be extinguished with a few engines and some people," he said.

So he sent a couple of his volunteer firefighters to the location, "and when we arrived on scene, we saw a moderate smoke column beginning to build from the fire area, and the fire area was in a draw, in steep rugged terrain," he said.

Firefighters couldn't get to the blaze and the fire continued to grow. They called to request air resources and firefighting crews.

"A lot of them were in the southern part of the country, because that's where most of the fires are this time of year," said Kuntz. "It takes a while to move them up into our area."

Resources weren't available as they usually are during the heavy fire season, which is typically August. In the past, wildfire season in the Mountain West usually started in July and ran through September. But this past June saw an overwhelming amount of wildfires, and it's taking a toll on the nation's firefighting resources like crews and helicopters.

Wildfire fighting in the United States is planned out. When a fire sparks, local county volunteer firefighters are dispatched first. If it continues to grow, state resources come in. Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said when fires become really large, more expensive resources like air tankers and federal firefighters enter the fray.

Flames are visible in mountains directly behind houses in a residential neighborhood
Kamila Kudelska / Wyoming Public Radio
Wyoming Public Radio
Flames coming over Mount Maurice. View from Red Lodge.

"Those interagency dispatch centers, when there are wildfires, they kind of control resources, going to those fires, [and] work with the incident commander to get the resources they want or need," he said.

But there's only a certain number of air tankers, large helicopters and hotshot crews that are available across the country. And they are moved strategically to the highest priority wildfires. Crapser said it often comes down to whether lives are threatened.

"So if you have a fire that's on the front range in Colorado that has 4,000 homes evacuated, it's higher on the priority list than if you have a fire up in the Wind Rivers where there's really no, 'values' at risk that they're looking at," said Crapser.

That's what happened with the Robertson Draw Fire. By the second full day of fighting, chief Tom Kuntz said they realized the blaze could threaten lives.

"We were really concerned about [the fire] going over the top of this plateau and burning into the Rock Creek drainage where we have a lot of homes, and would provide an easy way for that fire to run down and hit Red Lodge," said Kuntz.

This made the fire a priority and resources slowly started coming in by day three of the fire. Luckily, the wind changed, moving the blaze away from the community. But almost a month later, the fire is still not completely contained and they are still low on firefighters.

"We're having difficulties filling some wildland firefighter positions," said Jessica Gardetto, the spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, which manages national firefighting resources.

Gardetto said the country lacks federal firefighters.

"That's why the federal government is working on workforce transformation efforts to address situations involving firefighter pay, involving seasonal workers and transforming seasonal positions to permanent positions," she said.

This year is predicted to have above-normal fires, Gardetto said so far resources won't be managed any differently than other above normal years.

"There typically are requests for more resources than are available, which is why we have to go back to prioritizing wildfires and the resources they're going to that are going to go to those wildfires," she said.

But this worries Fire Chief Tom Kuntz about the rest of the summer.

"You end up with this snowball effect that you end up with continually having more fires that take up more resources that you don't have," said Kuntz. "And then you have more fires, which then need even more resources, which you have even less of now. So there's big concern for the summer."

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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