By Evelyn Pyburn
If it seems that
there have been fewer wildland fires in southeastern Montana, over the past few
years, that is indeed the case. And, the reason could be the results of a new
approach to firefighting that is being explored by the Montana Department of
Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).
It’s an idea devised by Derek Yeager, DNRC Southern Area Fire Program
Manager and Montana Fire Warden.
Formerly a member
of “hot shot crews” himself, after the devastating fire season of 2012, Yeager
started thinking “Something has to change. We have to do it better.”
2012 was a
particularly bad fire year. The Southern
Area experienced over 1,000 wildland fires exceeding the 5-year average of 704
a year. The year was dry, with lots of ignition sources, and resources were
slim. . Large fires burned homes, property, natural resources like pasture
land, destroyed fences, and forced people to evacuate, and others lost all they
Said Yeager, “ We
were dealing with 1,000+ acre fires literally every other day, sometimes
daily. Volunteers were on fires daily,
sometimes for multiple days straight. The costs of fighting those fires was
particularly troublesome to me. Being the local guy, I knew of fire departments
who were engaging fires. I saw their efforts. I went out and lived it with them
and gained an appreciation and respect and understanding of what they were
experiencing. I also recognized the value in applying as much common sense to
this situation as could be.
“The idea to
redirect our focus and commit funding and time and energy into increasing the
capacity of local fire departments to respond fast and heavy, to hit fires
small, to keep them small was the product of simple common sense, and in
recognition that the wildland fire system abroad, while purposeful and powerful
in many ways, has a finite capacity for the number of large fires it can
In analyzing the
situation and, most of all, in talking to all the factions involved –Yeager
came up with an idea, which, as Southern Area Fire Program Manager with
oversight of seven counties, he has been able to try out in a pilot program,
beginning small in the fall of 2015 in Yellowstone County.
Calling the new
strategy a really big deal, Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund said
that he is proud that Yellowstone County has been able to serve as its proving
ground. The new approach in dealing with fires is going to have major impact
across the country, believes Ostlund.
“It has been
enormously successful,” said Ostlund, “It is saving millions of dollar in
firefighting costs, and saving in lost property, injuries and lives.”
At the base of
Yeager’s idea is to get resources onto a fire as soon as possible. Instead of
hours or even days, his goal is to have resources on a fire within minutes.
seems to be working. After a number of years in which major fires would
routinely rage through the region in late summer and early fall, filling skies
with smoke and ash, and costing hundreds of millions of dollars to battle,
Yellowstone County and surrounding areas haven’t seen a major fire in over
three years. And, the fires that have occurred have been under a hundred acres.
that simply communicating – having discussions with the various factions
involved with firefighting, has been key to developing and implementing the
program. “There are so many different levels of government agencies involved,
and while all have the same interest, they couldn’t come together in a way that
kept fires small,” he said.
As a state
agency, the DNRC maintains an operating agreement with the BLM, USFS, NPS,
USFWS, BIA, and numerous other states, which allow them to trade and utilize
each other’s resources, with each paying the costs associated with using the
Simply by talking
with all the many individuals and agencies, Yeager created “buy-in,” to “give
it a try.” Continuing that process of getting “buy in” will be vital in
advancing the approach. The program is in its “infancy” characterized Yeager,
“but it is starting to get attention.”
Commissioner Ostlund, explaining how the program works will be part of the
agenda of the next statewide meeting of the Montana Association of Counties,
where “for the first time” he expects to get “buy-in” from most of the county
commissioners “who are excited about being able to better protect landowners.”
Almost all of the
area fire districts are participating in the program, although some districts
are too small or face other barriers to participation.
Last year, had the largest participation,
involving 400 volunteer fire fighters at 31 of 54 fire departments throughout
the seven counties, including those in Yellowstone County, such as Worden,
Shepherd, Lockwood, etc.
Yellowstone County’s Disaster and Emergency Coordinator and Fire Warden, KC
Williams, Yellowstone County’s fire chiefs are excited about the program. He
added, that although Yellowstone County’s fire chiefs and agencies always
worked well together – and although he hasn’t been long on the job – as the
plan has been implemented he has witnessed even greater coordination and better
communication among the local factions.
Under the new
program, no more waiting after a fire starts to see if it becomes large enough
to justify greater assistance, which has been the strategy of the past. Now,
resources are put into place in advance. The results have been that rather than
taking days to get resources to a fire, they now are there in a matter of minutes,
while it is still a small fire.
The approach has
made all the difference in the world.
Not only is it
more effective, it is less expensive and it is a boon to local fire
departments. It supports the volunteer fire fighters, bearing in mind, says
Yeager, volunteer fire fighters are at the core of success in all firefighting
The new plan
serves to support local fire departments through an agreement between them and
DNRC, which places DNRC fire fighters on duty at local fire stations under the
supervision of local fire chiefs. The fire fighters are local volunteers, who
become employed by DNRC, throughout the core fire season.
In the past,
after a fire became large enough to be deemed qualifying, fire fighters and
equipment from elsewhere in the country would be brought into the area to help
fight it. Transporting them to the fire site would take critical hours and
perhaps days – with the fire burning and expanding all the while. Once they
arrived, the fire fighters invariably were unfamiliar with the area, with its
culture and priorities, and with the local people with whom they had to work.
The cost of transporting, housing and feeding fire fighters contributed greatly
to the cost of firefighting.
Under the new
program not only are local departments reinforced with the addition of the
state-paid fire fighters, the fire fighters are local people, emotionally
attached to the area’s well-being, familiar with the area and with the people
and agencies with which they have to work.
The arrangement also
helps local fire departments with the common dilemma of having to send their
own fire fighters to fight wildland fires, elsewhere, for what is often a
matter of days or even weeks – leaving little back up to provide protection for
the local community.
While the DNRC
fire fighters are on-duty they perform duties related to being successful in
performing “rapid and aggressive initial attacks,” including training, maintaining equipment, and checking
out lightning strikes.
The wages the
volunteers receive improves their ability to be available. Most volunteers are usually dependent on other
jobs, which they can’t afford to leave for extended periods to help fight fire,
but being paid by DNRC not only makes that a greater possibility, but becomes
an incentive for others to serve as volunteers.
The idea of
sharing resources with local fire departments is not new for the DNRC. For some
time now they have loaned local departments fire trucks in order to have the
equipment available in locations with potential fire risk. Across the state
DNRC has 75 fire trucks on loan to local stations under cooperative agreements
– eight of those are located at fire districts in Yellowstone County.
also has in place, in advance, many other processes, permissions and
contractual arrangements required in dealing with firefighting, which before
were not dealt with until a fire had grown large. Previously, a fire chief
would call for help and then physically have to go through a required check
list before anyone would give assistance. Getting through that check list could
take from 24 to 72 hours, said Yeager. “That meant that meaningful help would
The data shows
that the new approach has a 8-1 benefit ratio, says Yeager. That means it costs
about 1/8 of that of fighting a raging wildland fire.
While the number
of reported fires has not changed – about 800 fires per year – “We don’t have
any large fires,” said Yeager.
through September is the core fire season, fires happen year round. They are
more prevalent when there is no snow cover. For example last weekend, before it
snowed, there were over a dozen wildland fires reported within a 48 hour
period. So, the DNRC plans for fire occurrence during all 12 months of the