Firefighters warn new fires burn in mysterious ways

2011-05-05T00:00:00Z Firefighters warn new fires burn in mysterious waysBy EVE BYRON Independent Record Helena Independent Record
May 05, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Fire officials in a tri-county area said they’re seeing extreme fire behavior in areas with trees killed by the mountain pine beetle.

Sonny Stiger, a fire behavior analyst, told a group gathered in Helena Wednesday for a forum on the impact of the rice-size beetles, that he’s seeing flame lengths of 200 to 300 feet in places they wouldn’t expect it; they’re experiencing unusual embers being thrown farther ahead of fires and groups of treetops torching; and ponderosa pines’ low-hanging dead branches are creating ladder fuels that allow blazes to spread more rapidly than in the past.

“The kind of things we’re dealing with is one fire grew to three acres in two minutes, 10 to 15 acres in the next eight minutes — that’s moving — and over 100 acres in the first hour,” Stiger said. “So we are experiencing unusual, extreme fire behavior now.”

During the past decade, mountain pine beetles have devoured about 9 million acres of forest in the Rocky Mountains from Colorado to Montana, and about 40 million acres in British Columbia. They kill mainly lodgepole and ponderosa pine trees by burrowing into them to lay eggs; when the eggs hatch, the young “girdle” the tree by eating around it in horizontal circles, cutting off the flow of nutrients, before they fly to new trees and re-create the deadly cycle.

In Montana, the 980,000-acre Helena National Forest has been particularly hard hit by the beetles, with dead or dying trees on 550,000 acres.

Brad McBratney, the fire management officer for the Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests, added they’re also seeing wildfires rage when they typically wouldn’t expect it. He said they used to use the 80-20-20 rule: that fires won’t transition to out-of-control burns if the temperatures are lower than 80 degrees, the relative humidity is more than 20 percent, with winds less than 20 mph.

But the Davis fire, which started out as a controlled burn last year near Canyon Creek and exploded into a multi-million-acre wildfire before it was extinguished, transitioned when temperatures were in the 70s and winds were only 7 to 9 mph in the area.

“We don’t have models that can make predictions anymore,” McBratney said. “Our old rules don’t work anymore. We need more research and still need the media and the Pat McKelveys of the world (who helps homeowners create defensible spaces) to make sure the public is informed and makes good choices on the landscape.”

Greg Archie with the state Department of Natural Resources ticked off a list of 13 fires fought during the past three years in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties, during a time he said most people considered “slow” fire seasons.

His biggest fear with the changing fire activity involves firefighter safety. Archie said they’re experiencing ponderosa pine trees 16 inches in diameter snapping in half 20 feet above the ground, surprising those on the ground. He noted that firefighters have to be even more vigilant in watching their escape routes, in case falling trees cut those off, and have to realize that the potential for fires to grow large, quickly, seems to be greater.

“We are scratching our heads trying to figure out how to tame this beast,” Archie said. “We need to build these science-based hypothetical pictures until we get enough experience to get that slide show (of how a fire will behave) established in our minds.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or

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(5) Comments

  1. dolphind3
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    dolphind3 - May 06, 2011 7:53 am
    Ok....I along with most people I have talked to have seen this coming for years. I truely hope that this is not a surprise to these folks
  2. Old Joe
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    Old Joe - May 05, 2011 10:59 pm
    I'll let you in on another "mystery."

    The trees which are affected by the Pine Beatles, are easily identifiable even at the early stage and could be harvested for timber, rather than left to become fuel for a future fire.

    Maybe that's Obama's (Schweizer's) idea of a job's program. ............FORREST FIRE...............

    P.S. It's less expensive to harvest the beetle killed timber, before it rots/dries, etc., than it will be to fight the eventual fires which WILL come with time. Those fires will kill off the healthy trees unaffected by the beatles. We're gonna' loose alot here folks, by doing nothing. In reality, the government is intentionally creating a very dangerous and expensive situation by ignoring the obvious.

    What's going on? This is not rocket science and anyone who spends time in the mountains knows these trees should be logged before they rot, and that is not overnight!

  3. 1oldWAC
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    1oldWAC - May 05, 2011 4:14 pm
    The fire fighting people may want to check with inland southern Calirofnia counties of Riverside and San Bernardino-same bark beetle problem from drought and same wind problem. It might save some lives out there-they have had this problem for 20 years and had to develope new techniques.
  4. MrMontana
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    MrMontana - May 05, 2011 1:51 pm
    Mr. McBratney, did you forget there was a RED FLAG warning the day the fire was set? Temperatures were not in the 70's or forecasted to be in the 70's. This is a lame justification from the incompetance of the FS..again.

    Will fire behavior be different with dead and dying tree's..yes..DAH!
  5. steeline
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    steeline - May 05, 2011 7:29 am
    Buy the time a "model" is developed for the dead, dying and dried out timber fires. It will be mute. Given the condition of our Forests coupled with the Pine Beatles effect is a ideal combination for explosive fast burning wildfires. If our forests had been managed properly the fire issues would be far less. It is not too late to salvage some of the timber. The country needs jobs, we have dangerous dead trees all over the west why not harvest them and process them into building material. There is enough marketable timber to have an impact on the cost of housing as well as jobs. We have to get America Right.

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