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Gov: State will again aggressively fight wildfires

by By KATE HESTON Daily Inter Lake
| May 14, 2024 7:00 AM

Gov. Greg Gianforte reiterated his administration’s aggressive approach to fighting wildfires during an annual fire briefing in Helena on Wednesday.

Gianforte told the assembled representatives of state and federal agencies that his main goals during the 2024 wildfire season were aggressively attacking all burns and promoting forest management. He also called on residents to take steps to prevent fires.

“We can’t stop every wildlife from starting but we can control our actions and our preparedness,” Gianforte said May 8. “As Montanans, we all have a role in preventing wildfires. It’s critical that we stay informed so we can protect our firefighters and our communities this season.”

During the 2023 fire season, 96% of fires were limited to 10 acres or less due to aggressive attack and fuel mitigation, Gianforte said. The state also successfully placed 36,000 forested acres under management in 2023, compared to 11,000 acres in 2020, he said.

The briefing did not address the fire forecast for 2024. Officials on hand stated it was too soon to tell how the warmer months will play out. Still, Gianforte acknowledged the low snowpack and drought conditions this year as possible detrimental factors.

Representatives from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said they were ready for the fire season, with the agency currently focused on hiring and training its workforce. Department officials, like Gianforte, urged residents to prepare for wildfires.

“Wildfire preparedness is not just a task for our wildfire responders, we also need citizens across Montana to take time and prepare for the potential impacts of wildfire this summer,” said Matt Hall, fire protection bureau chief at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Representatives from the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, the Montana National Guard and the Forest Service also boasted their agencies’ readiness, both in fighting fires and helping communities recover.

“If you need us, we will be there,” said Brig. Gen. Renea Dorval of the Montana National Guard.

Officials from the Department of Environmental Quality said that they are consistently monitoring air quality, especially during fire season because “the largest impacts to air quality across our state are from wildlife smoke,” according to Director Chris Dorrington.

Bryce Rogers, the regional management officer of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, said that the Bureau saw 350 starts last year with over 90% of them being less than 10 acres. While staffing and housing are concerns, the Bureau has expanded its firefighting capabilities, with a tactical team out of Browning and two helicopters in its toolbox, Rogers said.

Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park are ready to have an “aggressive initial response to all fires,” said Paul Cerda, deputy regional fire management officer for the National Park Service.

In addition to manned fire lookouts, ground resources and aviation assets, National Park Service officials said that the federal agency is hosting Conservation Corps teams in Glacier and Yellowstone to assist with firefighting and fuels mitigation.

Adriane Beck with the County Fire Wardens Association also expressed readiness. Whatever the fire season brings, the counties are prepared, she said.

“We are ready and willing to help whenever the call is made,” Beck said.

The governor will be briefed on the forecast for the 2024 season in the coming weeks, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Amanda Kaster, where a better understanding of possible risks will be discussed.