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Burning at Both Ends

Budget cuts have firefighters preparing for a mean season

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Like forecasting the weather, predicting the severity of a fire season is a tricky proposition, governed by a complex formula of weather patterns, resource conditions and the vagaries of human activity. This year, that calculus will likely become more complicated, as fire managers throughout the Northern Region of the USDA Forest Service must also factor in the triple-whammy of drier than normal winter and spring seasons, budget cuts that have reduced their first-strike capabilities and a national moratorium on prescribed burns that has all but wiped out their annual spring burning season.

Even factoring out the human components, the summer of 2000 has the potential to be a real scorcher. Fire managers and meteorologists aren’t ready to offer predictions until the end of the spring rains, which often determine the severity of a fire season. But figures from the National Weather Service reveal what most Montanans already know; that precipitation was lower than normal last winter, a trend that has continued into the spring. Snowpack levels in the Flathead Basin are running 82 percent of normal, 80 percent in the lower Clark Fork basin. The Upper Clark Fork and the Bitterroot basins have fared worse, with snow-water levels running at about 63 percent of normal.

“We’re watching it carefully, because if we don’t get the normal rains in May and June, and it’s dry to begin with, it could be critical later on this summer,” says Peter Felsch, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula.

Compounding the problem is the inability of fire managers to conduct their seasonal controlled burns, which ordinarily occur this time of year to reduce brush and other undergrowth that can fuel naturally occurring fires. In the aftermath of last week’s devastating wildfires that burned nearly 300 homes near Los Alamos, N.M., caused by a prescribed fire set by the National Park Service, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman have imposed a 30-day suspension on all federally prescribed burns.

For western Montana, that moratorium couldn’t have struck at a worse time. Fire crews were scheduled to burn about 6,200 acres over the next 30 days in Flathead National Forest and about 2,500 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest this week alone. Throughout the Forest Service’s Northern Region, which includes Montana, northern Idaho and North Dakota, as much as 30,000 acres will not undergo “fire treatment.”

That said, however, experts caution against reading too much into the effects of the moratorium, since the impact of controlled burns is felt more as a cumulative effect over many seasons.

“Missing out on 30 days is not going to make a huge difference,” says Greg Greenhoe, deputy director for Fire and Aviation for the Northern Region. “But for the burning we are doing, [the moratorium] does put a big dent in this year’s accomplishment.”

Few would argue, however, about the effect of budget cuts on the ability of fire crews to do their jobs. According to Greenhoe, the Northern Region maintained 529 seasonal and temporary firefighters in 1999, in addition to their regular full-time employees who could be used to fight fires. This year, Greenhoe expects to have only 397 firefighters, a 25 percent reduction in their fire response capability.

The effects of budgetary reductions appear to vary widely from forest to forest, even within the Northern Region. While Greenhoe says that both the Lolo and Bitterroot forests will be well-staffed for this year’s fire season, which officially runs from June 1 through Sept. 30, the Flathead faces a tougher season. According to Don Black, fire management officer for the Flathead National Forest, he had 54 seasonal and temporary firefighters at his disposal in 1999. This year he’ll have 21. Likewise, in 1999, Black could staff nine fire engines. This year they’re down to three.

“You can’t dictate, legislate or administratively determine the fire season. It’s presented to you,” says Black. “We can’t change that and say, well, because we’ve only got a third of the capability, therefore we’re only going to cope with a third of the fire season.”

While both Black and Greenhoe admit that allocations for fire services haven’t necessarily decreased—in some areas they’ve increased—what has changed is what that money must now pay for. As the Forest Service shrinks, a larger percentage of its fire money must now go toward covering other expenses, such as administrative costs, fixed facilities and other overhead.

Black says that the reduced capability will affect firefighting strategies by forcing them to fight smaller fires more aggressively before they become large, costly and resource-intensive. Additionally, it will also reduce their “drawdown capability,” or provide fire support to other regions of the country, as his crews are currently doing in New Mexico.

“If there’s a fire on the Flathead, no money will be spared to take care of it,” argues Joe Walsh, a spokesman for the Forest Service office in Washington, D.C. “When there’s a fire on the forest, whether their budget has been cut or not, all available resources are sent to that fire. It becomes a multi-agency effort.”

That’s assuming, of course, that those resources are available. As Black points out, many crucial firefighting tools, such as the air tankers based in Kalispell and Missoula, and the local “Hot Shot” teams, are resources shared system-wide. Which means that when Montana’s fire season finally commences, usually a month or two behind much of the West, those resources may not be around when we need them.

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