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Officials clarify county’s firefighting policy

Rural homes will still be protected, but firefighter safety comes first
2014-01-02T06:00:00Z Officials clarify county’s firefighting policyBy AL KNAUBER Independent Record Helena Independent Record
January 02, 2014 6:00 am  • 

A resolution approved by the Lewis and Clark County Commission in November has stirred concern that rural homes will no longer be provided with protection from wildfires.

County officials, fire service representatives and those who work with property owners to help remove brush and trees in hopes of keeping flames from reaching homes say there will not be a change in how rural fire departments respond to homes threatened by wildfire.

However, the overarching opinion was that firefighter safety will take precedence over attempts to save a home or structure.

Efforts to clear the air of misconceptions come after news came out this week of a resolution the county commissioners passed in November.

The resolution originated with the Lewis and Clark County Rural Fire Council and essentially said the county commission endorses the fire council’s position to place protection of firefighters’ lives above that of protecting structures.

The resolution also calls for training in basic fire behavior to allow firefighters to properly evaluate their ability to safely fight a wildfire and to not plan fire suppression tactics based on the location of homes.

“Firemen have the advice of the county commission that in the wildland interface, firemen shouldn’t put themselves at risk if there’s a fire,” said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Mike Murray. “They need to make a judgment on how dangerous it is to attempt to save the home versus the risk of the wildfire.”

“We have no authority over (rural fire departments) in the way they fight fires, but we can make recommendations,” he added.

Volunteer firefighters felt they had an obligation to defend structures, Murray said.

The resolution, he noted, says that “your life is more important than the structure. Take that into consideration.”

The commission’s resolution is an attempt to avoid situation similar to what caused the death of 19 wildland firefighters in Arizona on June 30.

According to a Dec. 4, 2013, New York Times online story, a state safety commission recommended fines against the Arizona State Forestry Division saying the agency wrongly put the protection of structures and pastureland ahead of the safety of the firefighters, including those who died in the blaze.

Eric Bryson, the county’s chief administrative officer, was critical of Tuesday’s news story.

“People who are being currently protected by rural fire departments can have every assurance that their protection isn’t minimized by this new resolution and essentially tactics aren’t going to change,” Bryson said. “The resolution specifically says that homes in the wildland-urban interface will not dictate fire-suppression tactics, strategies or the location of firelines. They never have.”

“I think (the news) article puts a different spin on what the Lewis and Clark county Commission did adopt in the resolution,” he continued.

The resolution gives direction to local firefighters to do best management practices in suppressing a wildfire, particularly to protect their own lives first, Bryson said.

“And it doesn’t change significantly how they’ve been operating in the past,” he said.

Firefighters will still protect structures and if they feel they can save a home, they’ll put resources toward that effort, Bryson said.

“The important part to remember, which was left out of that (news) article, is that those rural fire guys live in those areas that they provide protection. So they’re not going to take a stand-back approach to any structure fire. They’re going to do what they’ve always done,” he said. “But we’re trying to get an acknowledgement out there that we value the lives of the firemen and in certain cases there are going to be times that structures are going to burn; not because they’re not doing their job but because they’re trying to prioritize the way that they are attacking the fires.”

While firefighters will continue to try to protect property, said Helena Fire Chief Sean Logan, “Oftentimes firefighter deaths come over trying to save property.”

“If there’s someone’s life we can intervene and save, we will take a lot of risk to do that,” Logan said.“If it’s strictly a structure (fire), we’re going to take far less risk. We’re going to manage that risk intelligently.

“All this resolution is really saying is we’re going to approach fire so we can go home at night,” Logan added.

“Sonny” Stiger, a Helena resident and nationally recognized fire behavior analyst, and Pat McKelvey, the county’s prevention and mitigation official, as well as Logan, all say the resolution is not just in reaction to the deaths of the Arizona firefighters but about all firefighters who have died and managing firefighting risk.

Those in fire departments have not been good at asking themselves why risk lives for property, Logan said.

The resolution, he said, “This is pretty much a principle, a stand.”

Stiger will be providing the basic fire behavior training to rural fire departments and plans to begin with those in the Wolf Creek, Craig and Dearborn areas in mid-January.

He also praised the training rural fire departments receive from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and said, “They do a tremendous job of training.”

McKelvey said he would like to see all counties in Montana adopt the resolution.

“We’re going to try and move this statewide,” he said and on Tuesday the same resolution was adopted by the Jefferson County commission.

Once other counties understand the resolution is about firefighter safety and risk management and not about losing structures, McKelvey continued, those officials understand its purpose.

This was also an opportunity for McKelvey to note that his office has money available to assist property owners with the cost of removing brush and make homes safer from an approaching wildfire.

Mitigation helps protect a home, but it also goes a long way toward protecting firefighters, too, he said.

“The homeowners need to be a part of this,” McKelvey added.

The discussions that have resulted from the news story, McKelvey said, have created “a heightening of situational awareness.”

Logan agreed with the benefit of having people talking about wildfire and the protection of homes and structures.

“Awareness, I think, is a key part of heading to solutions to problems,” he said.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. JMWB
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    JMWB - January 02, 2014 8:19 pm
    Mitigation helps protect a home, but it also goes a long way toward protecting firefighters, too, he said. “The homeowners need to be a part of this,” McKelvey added.

    Those 2 sentences in the article are the most important. Fire mitigation around homes / buildings helps makes it safer for fire fighters. Fire fighters are you friends, family and coworkers, and there really are not very many of us out there. Fire mitigation goes a long way!!! So please land owners, remove the long dead grass, dead trees, thick tree stands and junk around your buildings so we can safely protect your property.

    And the Forest Service needs to step up and remove the dead trees within reach of the power lines.
  2. Elmo_Fudd
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    Elmo_Fudd - January 02, 2014 4:53 pm
    The point is to put the focus on safety and guide the departments in to adopting a different culture around the way they fight fires. The Commission's position is proactively addressing any situation that could lead to another Yarnell like loss of life. Did they need to state this? Maybe for some departments but for more in this county, no.

    The Commission, Mr. Stiger, and Sean Logan are emphasizing two very key points:

    1. Property owners need to play a bigger role in fire mitigation efforts on their property as their actions lead to better fire management and safer working conditions.
    2. Education, particularly on fire behavior, is key to reducing risks to fire personnel and preventing another Yarnell.

    I see no reason why anyone should write this off as "common sense" as it is most obviously not given the loss of life that occurs each year when the focus is on property protection instead of the safety of those working the fire.
  3. Reader14
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    Reader14 - January 02, 2014 4:08 pm
    When I read the article the other day, I was furious that the commissioners would tell firefighters to let our structures burn. Why am I paying for fire protection? I thought, the County allowed people to build in the wildland interface, they happily take our property tax money, now they don't want to step up to the plate to protect us.

    Now, after reading this article, I am puzzled. Why do the county commissioners need to waste time debating and passing a resolution that is truly a no-brainer. I don't know that any resident would realistically expect anyone to risk their lives to save a home. My take on this matter is that the firefighters on the line know what they can and can not do, let them do their job and make whatever decision is necessary and prudent at the time.

    The same holds true for search and rescue people that may find themselves in a dangerous situation, or anyone who responds to an emergency. They have to make a decision based on the circumstances.

    Why the heck did they have to waste time and resources for common sense practices?
  4. GreatWhite
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    GreatWhite - January 02, 2014 2:41 pm
    Elmo_Fudd, well said! I have been rereading this pulling what's left of my hair out thinking I must have missed some little factoid somewhere! All I kept getting from it was exactly what you wrote!

    My understanding was that some firefighters thought they were obligated to save structures, if no lives were being threatened, and that this is saying that is not the case. That firefighters in no way need to put their lives on the line for structures alone.
  5. Elmo_Fudd
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    Elmo_Fudd - January 02, 2014 1:20 pm
    It appears that even a clarification cannot simmer the easy to boil tempers of some...

    Volunteers and paid fire professionals alike know firefighting ain't risk proof. However, the answer to the question of "Should a volunteer firefighter be risking their life to defend a property that offers no safety zone or fuel break?" is unequivocally "No!". Volunteers have families to go home to and unless you are in your house when it's about to burn down, your house will never be more important than the lives of those doing their best to protect it.

    The Commission is informing the agencies here in Lewis and Clark of something that most already know, that if defending homes or groups of home from wildfire poses an undue risk to firefighters that they are to err on the side of safety. Most departments here in the Helena Valley have already implemented guidelines and tactics that emphasize firefighter safety way in advance of this policy. Having it as policy simply provides the departments the support that they would like to have from the Commissioners.
  6. Sherlock
    Report Abuse
    Sherlock - January 02, 2014 10:36 am

    Commissioner Murray of all people should know the VFD's in the county were formed to fight STRUCTURE fires including the Helena's Fire Department for which protects his home...! If Firemen were to take the advice of the county commissioners, "firemen shouldn’t put themselves at risk if there’s a fire,” why even have a fire department...?

    As to why the commissioners decided to waste there time on this in the first place is beyond me or is it a control thing on the Commissioners part...?

    If they need something to do, focus on the real problem's facing our county concerning real fire bugs, i.e. the USFS and BLM... They have caused far more damage to the county and it residents by starting prescribed burns and allowing lightning caused fires to burn uncontrolled resulting in taxpayers spending millions and millions of dollars over the years...!

    These agencies are responsible for endangering the lives of our volunteer fire fighters and others including their own...!

    When will you take ACTION ON REAL FIRE PROBLEMS...? WHEN...!

  7. Fireman78
    Report Abuse
    Fireman78 - January 02, 2014 8:51 am
    All i can say is WOW! I have been a Firefighter for a volunteer department for about 15 years, I have done Structure and Wildland fires and i instruct in both. I have been all over the US fighting wildland fires. My oppinon is if you teach the firefighters the proper fire behavior and give them the tools to do the job, let them do thier jobs. If you give people a easy way out lots of people will take it. It has always been in structure protection if you can safely protect the house to your level of training then do so. Life Safety, Property Conservation, Incident Stablization. PLEASE just let firefighters do thier jobs, yes at time people don't make the best decisions and people get hurt, that just tells me that we need to training our firefighters in more Fire Behavior. 290,290,290

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