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.