WISDOM — Wisdom District Ranger Dennis Havig knew almost from the start that the Mussigbrod Fire was going to be dangerous.
After the first smoke was spotted on July 31, high on the Continental Divide, Havig called smokejumpers to attack the blaze, which was beginning to burn in heavy fuels scattered across a rugged countryside.
The firefighters arrived just before dark. By 10 a.m. the next morning, Havig listened on the radio as the smokejumpers called for help. Three had made their way to a safety zone and were hauled off the mountain by helicopter. The other five hiked out seven miles — often being led through the thick smoke by instructions from a hovering helicopter.
“As I listened to those people on the radio, it sent me a clear picture of just how careful we needed to be,” said Havig.
Four days ago, a division boss and a small group of firefighters found themselves in the middle of a firestorm when the Maynard and Mussigbrod fires burned together near Bender Creek. They had just enough time to use a bulldozer to build a 200-foot circular safety zone before the fire blew over them.
And recently, Havig saw flames leaping a hundred feet higher than the forest’s crown as the inferno burned over the Continental Divide.
“I keep asking myself, ‘My God, what can we do to stop these fires?”’ he said.
That’s a question Big Hole Valley residents are asking these days. Emotions run high as fires threaten residences and locals watch much-loved areas go up in smoke. This week, Big Hole residents attended public meetings in Dillon with Gov. Marc Racicot and a later one with Forest Service officials. People complained about the agency’s tactics and response to fighting the fire.
The Mussigbrod Fire, which has burned through nearly 70,000 acres, has joined other blazes and is part of the largest complex of fires burning in the United States.
Kenda Coon’s home on the North Fork Ranch is a couple of miles away from the fire. She believes the agency should have done more to corral the fire early on. Coon told both the governor and later Forest Service officials that she believed the agency could be doing more.
“There’s a lot of frustration and upset. We’ve been told by firefighters and others that this fire could have been put out by now,” she said. “I believe that environmentalists and the Forest Service are influencing all of this. People are getting uptight in the Wisdom area.
“We want it out,” she said.
It is the “wastefulness” that disturbs Big Hole rancher Fred Hirschy. Hirschy has leased a ranch house and surrounding property for the Mussigbrod fire camp. He’s visited the camp four or five different times.
“I just think it’s real sad how the taxpayers’ money is being wasted,” Hirschy told Racicot.
For instance, he said the caterer is charging $20 for supper, $12 for lunch and $8 for breakfast for each of the 600 or so people at the fire camp.
“I’ve seen the meals and I’ll guarantee you that they’re not $20 meals,” he said. “And when you go to see somebody about something, you have to go through 10 different people where one could have done the job.
“It’s just a terrible, terrible waste,” he said.
Locals complained of rumors they’d heard that firefighters weren’t allowed to fight the fire. They questioned whether environmental concerns — such as endangered plants or fish — were getting in the way of effective firefighting. And when Forest Service officials began to address their concerns, a number walked out of the Tuesday evening meeting.
Larry Humphrey, the Mussigbrod incident commander, said his team members changed tactics when they took over the fire earlier this month. All the firefighters under his command had specific jobs — some were held on reserve for initial attack on new fires. Others helped protect structures at times, he said.
Humphrey said the initial overhead team attempted a direct attack on the fire. In heavy, tinder-dry fuels, the fire grew rapidly and overran the line somewhere every single day, he said.
“If the tactic that you’re using continues to fail day after day, you need to change tactics,” Humphrey said.
To make the firefighters’ work more difficult, the Mussigbrod and Maynard fires are for the most part “plume driven,” he said. Unlike a wind-driven fire, where firefighters can set an anchor point at the tail of the fire, plume-driven fires create their own weather.
“They are extremely unpredictable,” he said. “There is nothing to steer them one direction or another - in those conditions it is extremely dangerous to try put people up next to the fire.”
So, the decision was made to back off and build a line. As the fire neared the line, firefighters would set fires that would burn back toward the main fire and essentially rob it of fuels. The tactic has been working so far and officials say the huge blaze is about 15 percent contained.
The decision was made early to set the lines where they were defensible, but not to immediately burn out those areas. The firefighters instead waited for the fire to come to t hem. Humphrey said if something happens to cool the fire, those unburned areas will be left alone.
“We are trying to be as light on the land as we possibly can,” he said.
Humphrey and his crew from southwest Montana on Wednesday turned the fire over to a new team, lead by Wally Bennett, a firefighter with 32 years of experience. Bennett and his crew have already been on five other major fires this summer.
“Our hands haven’t been tied in fighting fire this year,” Bennett said in response to a statement about the potential for politics to influence efficient firefighting. “We are having to use different tactics than what we’re used to ’85 and at times it’s been frustrating.”
This is the first year in his career that Bennett has seen the No. 1 priority be initial attack. The second priority is structure protection and the third is controlling the current fires, he said.
“This year is just a completely different ballgame,” he said.
Bennett said he agreed with the tactics being used on the Mussigbrod fire. While he and all other trained firefighters would rather get as close as possible — “one foot in the black, one foot out” — the conditions have made that approach impossible this year, he said.
“Under these conditions there are a lot of things that you just can’t do,” said Bennett. “We’re doing the best we can.”
Coon said it’s upsetting to know that fire can change the landscape so quickly.
“You can insure your house. You can remove the antiques. But you can’t fix the forest that burns down in a year,” she said. “It’s just such a terrible waste. It’s sickening.