As the guest of Rotary Club of Winnfield’s President Jodi Taylor, local U. S. Forest Ranger Brad Cooper talked about his experiences fighting wildfires in Montana this past summer at the Club’s meeting on September 15, 2021.
Mr. Cooper has been with the local district of the U. S. Forest Service for 2-1/2 years, after working in Arizona for several years. He enjoys living and working here in the southeastern party of the country, but he had an exciting summer spending much of his time fighting wildfires in Montana.
All forest rangers are of course trained to fight forest fires, and must fight wildfires in their own districts. Many forest rangers volunteer to help fight wildfires in other national forest districts, in light of the large numbers of people, equipment and supplies required to extinguish large wildfires primarily occurring in the northwestern part of the U.S. and California. Indeed, nine other rangers from this district went west to fight wildfires on national forest lands this summer, along with a fire engine as well.
In July, Cooper was sent to assist in fighting wildfire in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest near Helena in the central part of Montana. He said 50 to 55 people on his team were dedicated to fighting a cluster of four fires in those two national forests, from the command section to those who are physically engaged in extinguishing the fire to the people who set up and break down the camps, cook for the camp, to those in logistics—this last group brings in all the equipment and supplies needed to fight fires and keep the firefighters going.
Brad was the command section’s liaison officer, responsible for working with local authorities on such matters as recommending evacuations and the like. In this capacity, he was also the COVID-19 coordinator, working with the county health department to develop and implement a COVID plan and protocol for persons in the camp who contracted COVID. He supervised anywhere from four to ten medics and ambulance personnel, and developed a protocol for isolating and treating anyone who came down with COVID. These fires were going for 70 days and affected over 48,000 acres.
Cooper returned home on July 31, and a few days later, he was dispatched to Montana again to help fight a complex of wildfires, started by lightning, across the Lolo National Forest about 2-1/2 hours west of Helena. In this area the forest service had the assistance of about 200 National Guard troops. He said these troops did what they were already trained to do, and were also trained up during their assignment specifically in fighting forest fires. Fortunately for the COVID coordinator as well as the people in his camps, neither of Mr. Cooper’s camps had any cases of COVID-19. Several firefighting camps elsewhere had hundreds of people who contracted COVID.
Fire fighter safety is the top priority in fighting wildfires, according to Cooper. “If we can’t put firefighters in an area safely, we don’t put them in,” he said. The acreage of national forests involved in wildfires increases every year, and the expense of fighting them increases every year as well. It is becoming harder and harder to fill positions on fires because of the COVID epidemic, the fact that fewer people are willing to fight forest fires, and the steadily-increasing number of wildfires in the western part of the United States.
In the Southern area of the National Forest Service, we have fires only about every ten years or so, according to Cooper, whereas the northwest area and California experience many wildfires every year. “We use preventive measures here which are not used in the west,” he said, such as prescribed burns, clearing undergrowth, fire retardant, and dozers.
What can property owners do to prevent fire damage to their own property? Keep the “Wildland Urban Interface” (WUI)—groups of homes and other structures in close proximity to national forest land—clear of brush and other inflammatory material, clean up or move debris and “stuff” away from houses and buildings, and stack firewood away from houses and other buildings. Cooper’s thought: “It’s better to have to go some distance from the house to get your firewood,” than to leave things which catch fire easily very close to your house.
The forest service has an incident website which can be accessed by the public through inciweb.nwcg.gov providing information about active wildfires across the country being battled by teams of the National Forest Service. You can search by the name of the incident, type (wildfire, prescribed fire, burned area emergency response), state in which the national forest area on fire is located, or size (number of acres involved in the fire). The incident overview tells specific location of the burning area, what is currently occurring with the fire, areas identified for evacuations of residents, the team managing the fire, and public use restrictions in the area. The incident information is updated as frequently as every five minutes when the situation is changing quickly, and less often as developments occur over longer and longer periods of time. Also interesting to note, each incident has its own assigned meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Upon completion of Mr. Cooper’s talk, questions and answers flew, and the meeting was then adjourned with the Rotary motto: “Service above self!”