Fire has never recognized jurisdictional lines on a map.
When a fire breaks out or someone faces a medical emergency in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson or Broadwater counties outside of city limits, it is typically the local volunteer firefighters or EMTs who are first on the scene. As first responders they are often faced with the unknown and must make fast decisions on coordinating resources to potentially save lives and property.
The Helena-area volunteer fire setup is typical to most parts of the state and country with departments responsible for districts. What is unique about area departments, including the city of Helena, is just how well everyone works together, said Dave Sammons, East Valley Volunteer Fire Department chief and president of the Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Council.
“At East Valley as far as I’m concerned we don’t have a border,” he said.
In the past, and persisting in other parts of the state, jurisdictional conflicts can hamper the ability of fire and emergency crews to assist each other. For Helena and the surrounding area, those walls were knocked down by past fire officials who knew how critical collaboration can be in an emergency, Sammons said.
Sammons credited former East Gate Chief Ken Mergenthaler, who passed away in January, as one of several key figures behind the mutual aid agreements allowing firefighters to travel to other districts and assist.
“The fire chief before me had the foresight to work through the fire council chest pounding in the old days,” he said. “They all had enough foresight in the beginning and that’s why we all work together so well now.
“I don’t think there’s a better community and I’m pretty proud of what we have here and work hard to keep it.”
Pat McKelvey of the Tricounty FireSafe Working Group echoed the efforts by Mergenthaler and others not only in expanding mutual aid in the counties but also statewide.
Volunteer fire crews can now respond across the state to assist on fires, often staying on scene for 24 to 48 hours during initial attack.
“Kenny was the backbone of that and he very much believed in it,” McKelvey said. “It helps us or them get through a short period of time to get a response going. It works because each department can’t be the be-all-end-all for fire trucks.”
Mutual aid is largely about the economics of rural fire departments, he said. Clancy, for example, does not have a ladder truck and relies on Montana City to respond if firefighters need to access the top of a building.
With many homes now dotting the forest and grasslands of the county, officials encourage landowners to prepare by taking advantage of Tricounty or NRCS grants to mitigate around structures.
Further breaking down jurisdictional boundaries is the inclusion of the Montana City Volunteer Fire Department crossing county lines to serve on the Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Council, as well as DNRC, the Forest Service, the sheriff’s department and St. Peter’s Hospital, Sammons said.
To expedite response to fires and other emergencies, dispatch and the fire coordinator have “run cards” of available volunteer fire department resources. Having that card available allows dispatch to page the resources at the press of a button.
As firefighters from one district or the city of Helena travel to another district, it is the job of the fire coordinator to backfill resources to ensure districts are staffed at all times, Sammons said.
“This county is probably one of the best in the state as far as mutual aid agreements and working together -- it’s seamless,” said Baxendale Chief Jordan Alexander.
The Baxendale Volunteer Fire Department located west of Helena plays an important role in fire defense for the city. With prevailing west winds that can rip off MacDonald Pass, if a wildfire gets past Baxendale, it has plenty of grass and timber to reach the city limits.
Firefighters were faced with just such a scenario earlier this summer on the RV Ranch fire, when a hayfield caught ablaze off of U.S. Highway 12 triggering evacuations in Colorado Gulch. As soon as he saw the fire, Alexander called in for mutual aid.
“Everyone was on their gun that day,” he said.
Volunteers from around the area swarmed to the fire as it scorched through grass and reached thick stands of pine trees a ridge away from homes in Colorado Gulch. The blitz was accompanied by air support from DNRC in the form of helicopters, and Forest Service slurry bombers dropped retardant.
Expert projections later said that without the response, the fire would have spread across Colorado Gulch in two hours. In another two hours, it would have been burning up the backside of Mount Helena, Alexander said.
“That’s the big advantage in this valley is access to DNRC helicopters,” Baxendale Assistant Chief Clint Loss said. “If they’re parked and we have a situation, they are Johnny-on-the-spot and that makes a big difference.”
The priority for fire officials is to keep fires small before they burn out of control and threaten life and property. There is no “let it burn” policy due to the risks involved both to residents and firefighters, Alexander said.
Beetle kill adds another safety concern in an already dangerous situation, he said.
“We’re a lot more cautious about sending hand crews into areas that are going to be a safety issues where they don’t have escape routes and don’t have a safety zone,” Alexander said. “We’re not going to put our firefighters in harm’s way.
“What’s really bad for us is if it starts in the national forest thick and deep and we can’t get to it with our equipment right away while it’s small.”
The coordination and collaboration goes beyond city and county fire crews and includes DNRC and the Forest Service.
“Our relationship with both the Forest Service and DNRC is outstanding,” Alexander said. “We get as much support and help from both organizations as you can imagine. We call for the help and we get it.”
While emergency response relies heavily on rural fire districts, finding volunteers remains a challenge. East Valley has 32 volunteers while Baxendale has 20. The crews available at any given time are much smaller -- often six or eight.
“It’s feast or famine and each department has their struggles as far as keeping volunteers,” Sammons said.
With the hectic lives many people lead, the time to volunteer, especially when it requires hours of training to remain certified as a firefighter or EMT, stops many prospects.
“We’re in a big campaign right now to try and recruit people,” McKelvey said. “It seemed like when I was 22 years old with Clancy, a lot of us felt like we wanted to give back to the community in that way. For some reason people just aren’t doing that as much anymore. If I had the answer for that I’d sure share it.”
Volunteers meeting certain requirements qualify for retirement benefits, and McKelvey praised the learning experience volunteering has afforded him.
Volunteers are needed for more than just fire or medical, Loss said. They may offer support services, logistics or fundraise. Most fire departments have a charity association attached to them to handle tax deductible donations, he said.
When it comes to fire or emergency response, every piece of equipment is expensive, Alexander said.
FEMA grants can help pay for equipment from trucks to radios along with public and private funds.
Local fire departments have benefited from programs through the Department of Defense and facilitated through DNRC to use surplus equipment, Alexander said.
Two of Baxendale’s trucks came through the Defense program, retrofitted to fight fire.
“Anymore you really have to be creative to save the department as much as you can,” he said.