Montana fire crews already stretched thin

| July 05, 2012

It's 4 a.m. on June 25 and Jon Agner, the district fire management officer of the Madison Ranger District, should be sleeping, but instead he's on the phone planning evacuations from the unruly walls of fire burning the valley below.

As of Monday, July 2, the Pony and Bear Trap 2 fires continued to burn while firefighters worked day and night to extinguish the almost 20,000 acres of wildfire in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The larger Bear Trap 2 fireburning 15,341 acres—was, as of press time, 100 percent contained, with firefighters mopping up the scorched earth. But the Pony fire, of 4,800 acres, raged on, burning dead timber on steep, rocky slopes and threatening the town of Mammoth. It's hard to contain, Agner said. "With large stands of dead beetle-kill forest, they go up like a matchbook and tend to fall pretty fast."

The Pony fire had almost 400 people working to contain it. A key factor in the success of the crews' initial response, Agner said, was the cooperation and teamwork of fire crews from federal, state and county departments. "I believe it's born out of necessity," he said. "With declining federal budgets and less resources available, you see a lot more cooperation between state, county and federal resources in fire response—much better than 20 years ago."

Cooperation between the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Madison County volunteers was essential in filling the void left by the many Montana firefighters working in Colorado, where fires have burned thousands of acres, destroyed 722 homes and left one person dead.

Many of the crews are returning from Colorado after their 15-day tours to help battle fires in their home state. "We need to beef things up here, with the season kickin' up early as it is," Agner said.

He joked that the outcome of Montana's fire season can only be predicted six months later. "But to see a crown fire between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in late June, that's unusual fire activity," Agner said, "and could be an indicator that, yes, we're dry and this could be an extremely busy season."

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