FireSafe Montana is a private, non-profit organization coordinating and supporting a statewide coalition of diverse interests working together to help Montanans make their homes, neighborhoods, and communities fire safe.
InciWeb has announced a ‘red flag’ warning today (8/30/16) for the ‘Copper King’ Fire that has now burned nearly 25,000 acres in the Lolo National Forest northeast of Thompson Falls. This warning says to expect low humidity, and an unstable air mass, and scattered, dry thunderstorms by late afternoon into the evening
Similarly, a ‘red flag’ warning has been issued for 8/30/16 for the area of the Roaring Lion Fire in the Bitterroot National Forest near Hamilton. This fire has claimed 14 homes and the life of one person (a sixty-four year old man who tragically suffered a heart attack during mandatory evacuation), and has burned approximately 8500 acres. The warning is from noon to 9:00 PM 8/30/16 due to strong winds (20-30 MPH with gusts of 35-55 MPH near expected thunderstorms).
These active fires are stark reminders that Montana’s fire season is still ongoing and that Montanans should remain vigilant and promptly report smoke or wildfires by calling 911. For more information, please visit the ‘Smoke & Fire Reports’ link on FireSafe Montana’s home page.
The North Fork Landowners’ Association held its yearly ‘Firewise Day’ on July 13, 2016 at Sondreson Community Hall, Whale Creek, in north Flathead County preceding their Summer Interlocal meeting. As usual, the event was well organized, informative, and well attended. As a result of prior experiences with wildfires in the North Fork, landowners are acutely aware of the need to be prepared for wildfire season. The ‘Red Bench’ Fire of 1988, as well as the Wedge Canyon and Robert Fires in 2003, in particular, still live vividly in the memories of fire experts and ‘old timers’ in the North Fork Community as vivid examples of why everyone should have a plan for what to do in the event of a wildfire.
In 1998, a comprehensive fire management plan for the North Fork of the Flathead River was created through collaboration between landowners and federal, state, and local fire experts. Today, the North Fork is a model for what communities can do to reduce wildfire risks by becoming ‘firewise’ through strategic fuels reduction projects, and by organizing landowners about the best ways to protect themselves, their families, and their community from wildfire risks.
Allen Chrisman welcomed the group and introduced the speakers for the day’s event. Angela Mallon of Montana DNRC discussed the importance of analyzing the effectiveness of fuels reduction projects as part of a landowner’s wildfire protection plan with a presentation entitled ‘One Size Does Not Fit All’.
The group then watched an outstanding NFPA sponsored video featuring Jack Cohen’s Your Home Can Survive a Wildfire, and answered questions about individual concerns. This 13 minute video (see link above) is a ‘must see’ for anyone interested in the science of wildfires, and how to best protect a home situated in the forest.
James Brower, of Flathead County EMS, discussed the importance of having an evacuation plan as part of over-all wildfire preparedness. Every family living in the forest should have a written wildfire evacuation plan that’s periodically reviewed and discussed among family members which includes a plan for what to take on short notice and that includes a designated meeting place in the event of a wildfire.
Brower also noted that since it takes a long time for a structure engine to reach the North Fork, it’s up to landowners to make their homes more defensible. He also cautioned that engines won’t enter overgrown driveways due to firefighter life safety concerns. [Note: FireSafe Montana fully supports this position, as well as the position that community fuels reduction projects help create a safer ‘work place’ for firefighters, and allows them greater flexibility. For more information about this, please visit the FSM Home Page].
Andy Huntsberger, Fire Management Office for the Flathead Forest’s Hungry Horse-Glacier View District for USFS, discussed the forecast for the 2016 wildfire season, and Bill Swope of Flathead Economic Partners discussed current grant opportunities for those interested in removing hazardous fuels from their property, as well as the progress being made on the Trail Creek Ingress/Egress project which is nearing completion. When completed, this will make travel much safer on that road as a primary escape route from the upper North Fork.
Molly Shepherd did the final ‘wrap up’ of the days event before the meeting was adjourned for a pot luck lunch. Please click here for Molly Shepherd’s detailed report on the event prepared for the North Fork Landowners’ Association.
The North Fork Landowners’ Association’s ‘Firewise Day’ is an outstanding example of what communities and landowners can do to help mitigate wildfire risks by organizing and by becoming better informed about wildfires. Congratulations to all involved!!!
North Fork landowners listen to Bill Swope of Flathead Economic Partners (middle) and Andy Huntsberger, Fire Management Officer for the Flathead Forest’s Hungry Horse-Glacier View District for USFS (bottom) talk about hazardous fuels grant opportunities and the forecast for the 2016 wildfire season.
Volunteers meet before reenactment of the ‘One-Third Mile To Safety’ event.
Volunteers met in Helena on June 18,2016 for reenactment of an event known as ‘One-Third Mile To Safety’, based on a true story of how wildfire changed the lives of one California family.
The ‘takeaways’ from the event were:
(1) The importance of what is known as ‘situational awareness’ (i.e. knowing what’s going on with a fire at all times) cannot be overemphasized;
(2) Evacuate early to avoid becoming ‘trapped’ by a wildfire and
(3) Don’t wait to be told to evacuate if you feel at risk or in danger.
One-Third Mile to Safety: A Family’s Story
Learn to Plan for Emergency Situations and Evacuations
This story began in 2003 with a human-caused wildfire in southern California that burned more than 280,000 acres and 2,232 homes, but most importantly and tragically, led to the untimely death of a bright, young woman named Ashleigh Roach. Ashleigh’s sister, Alyson Roach, survived the event but was severely burned.
On June 18, 2016, Helena residents learned how wildfire touched the lives of this California family through reenactment of an event known as “One-Third Mile to Safety: A Family’s Story” staff ride, which was conducted at the Neighborhood Assembly of God Church (725 Granite Ave.) in Helena.
The “One-Third Mile to Safety” event is based on a real life wildfire experience involving the Roach family, which lived one-third of a mile from their local volunteer fire department, yet not all of their family members were able to safely evacuate their home. Sadly, Ashleigh Roach, age 16, was killed in the fire during the family’s evacuation.
Participants in the reenactment took a guided, 1/3-mile walk along Le Grande Cannon Blvd. and Silverette Street, stopping at several stations to hear the evacuation story from the perspective of the Roach family members. After the walk, Allyson Roach spoke to participants with her first-hand account of that day and advice on how people can prevent this from happening to their own families. Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Dutton also discussed local evacuation procedures, and volunteer firefighters and emergency coordinators discussed wildfire mitigation opportunities for homeowners.
“This was a very emotional day, full of powerful and inspirational messages,” said Sonny Stiger, Tri-County FireSafe Working Group representative and retired Forest Service Fire Behavior Analyst. “It was not meant to be a light-hearted experience but rather to be an experience that moves our Montana neighbors into taking action: to get prepared and ready for wildfire season, each and every year; and to evacuate if or when that call is made.”
FireSafe Montana, Tri-County FireSafe Working Group, Broadwater County, Jefferson County, Lewis and Clark County, Lewis & Clark Rural Fire Council, City of Helena, Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and other partners co-hosted the “One-Third Mile to Safety” staff ride to help share the Roach Family’s tragic story in hopes that Montana residents will be prepared if/when wildfire is near their home(s).
“No one can be too prepared,” Lori Roach said in a letter to Ravalli County residents in 2010, when they participated in a similar staff ride. “And what our experience demonstrates is that you have to have a plan. You have to have a back-up plan. You have to have a third plan. You have to have an all-holes, unplugged, extraordinary circumstances plan. In fire situations, my advice is if an evacuation order is given, go. Drop everything, go.”
FireSafe Montana would like to thank all of those who participated in this reenactment; and to the Roach family in general, and Alyson Roach in particular, for their courage and inspiration in surviving a horrific experience and for their willingness to share this experience as a way of helping others understand and avoid wildfire risks.
A DVD of another reenactment of the ‘One-Third Mile To Safety’ may be obtained by contacting FireSafe Montana.
August 5 marks the sixty-seventh anniversary of the single largest loss of wildfire firefighters’ lives in Montana history. On the late afternoon of August 5, 1949, 13 people were killed by a wildfire at Mann Gulch, located along the upper Missouri River near the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in the Helena National Forest.
For those who study fire history, Mann Gulch is a remarkable case study involving considerable controversy, as well as significant “lessons learned” 1.
While, at one point, it may have been tempting to attribute the loss of life at Mann Gulch to a less sophisticated and technologically disadvantaged period of time in wildfire-fighting history, the South Canyon Fire (1994), (where 14 firefighters died), and most recently the Yarnell Hill Fire (2013), (where 19 highly trained ‘hot shots’ lost their lives) clearly shows that this is wishful thinking.
We remember these losses, not only to honor the memories of those who died, and their families; but also as a stark reminder that fire-fighting is inherently dangerous and difficult work—even with the best equipment and most highly skilled firefighters available. These tragedies are sobering reminders that adherence to safety really does matter but, in some cases, this alone may not be enough to prevent a tragedy from occurring. The late Bob Sallee, who survived at Mann Gulch perhaps said it best at a gathering to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Mann Gulch:
“Wildfires are and always will be dangerous, and we must respect their potential to put a firefighter in harm’s way. And life is precious; and for some very short.” 2.
In remembering the Mann Gulch tragedy, we invite our firefighting partners and friends to please ‘be safe’ this fire season.
1. The most complete description of events occurring at the Mann Gulch Fire is contained in Maclean, Norman (1992) Young Men and Fire, Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press. A fascinating description of Bob Sallee’s recollections when he revisited the scene at Mann Gulch is contained in Maclean, John N. (2003). The Last Survivor. Fire and Ashes, On The Front Lines of American Wildfire (pp. 175-191). New York, New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC. See also, Rothermel, Richard C., Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn’t Be Won, (May, 1993) US Department of Agriculture, General Technical Report INT-299 at www.fireleadership.gov/toolbox/staffride/downloads/lsr14/Race_That_Couldnt_Be_Won.pdf.
2. Maclean, John N. (2003). The Last Survivor, Fire and Ashes, On The Front Lines Of American Wildfire, p. 191. New York, New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC.