|August 8, 2013
Firestone Flats Fire reveals excellent quality of responders and firefighters
By Jim Blow
Smoke billows skyward Saturday afternoon, July 27, as the Firestone Flats fire takes off north of the Jocko Canyon Road. Members of the Ronan Volunteer Fire Department and Arlee Fire Department wait along the road to work on spot fires in support a burn-out operation that helped protect homes along the south side of the road, east of Arlee. (Jim Blow, photo)
Wildfire season is just now reaching its peak here in western Montana so our eyes tend to revisit the horizon regularly for billowing clouds of smoke that signal one of nature's most sweeping forces. There is much we can do to prepare for the inevitable threat of fire to our property, but we all rely on dedicated firefighting crews to come in and battle the blazes to protect us when those fires run out of control.
As a former journalist in the Mission Valley, I covered quite a few wildfires in our area over the years. But I'm also a volunteer firefighter with the Ronan Volunteer Fire Department. My summers now involve working wildfires instead of covering them, which gives me a much different perspective. My observations of wildfires are much more direct and I have much more personal experience with the men and women who actually work the line on these fires.
Most recently I was able to observe and learn from how fires are worked on from the Firestone Flats fire, east of Arlee in the Jocko Valley Road area. I was an engine boss on a Type 6 fire truck - often referred to as a brush truck - that was called out to assist on the initial attack of the fire on Saturday, July 27. Our two brush trucks and a large structure engine from Ronan VFD joined a massive local response that included crews and equipment from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' Division of Fire and VFDs from Arlee, St. Ignatius and Frenchtown. Eventually, crews from Lolo, Bitterroot, Superior, aircraft from Missoula, Lake County Office of Emergency Management and Search and Rescue, various law enforcement, and others were also deployed quickly, along with contractors in the region and several hotshot crews, including the Chief Mountain crew from Browning. So, it truly became a multifaceted operation very quickly.
The first two days of the fire were managed by the Division of Fire. After that, the operation was turned over to a federal Type 2 incident command team. To the public, that may all meld in together. But for firefighters that can mean significant changes in how the fire is worked. Fortunately, this fire was well managed on both ends of that evolution. However, I don't believe many people may fully appreciate how critical the effort put out in those first two days was in keeping this fire contained to the 1,570 acres it burned.
The Arlee fire crews were first to respond to the fire on Saturday, but they quickly realized the management of the fire needed to be handed over to the tribes' Division of Fire. Responsibilities for fire coverage in the Mission and Jocko Valleys overlap with the tribes, so all of the local VFDs have strong working relationships with the Division of Fire, which is managed and led by Ron Swaney.
Bob McCrea of the Division of Fire was our incident commander on Saturday and Sunday and not enough praised can be lumped onto his shoulders for his leadership. He'll be the first to insist that it was the crews who put out the fire but Bob's direct, common sense approach got everyone on the fire quickly and put us in a position to make significant progress in a crucially short amount of time. That progress saved homes along the Jocko Valley Road, but it also kept this fire from becoming a huge inferno that could have burned much hotter and wider.
Robert Jennison closely watches the fire progress down to the edge of the Jocko Valley Road during a controlled burn-out Saturday afternoon on the Firestone Flats fire. The burn-out helped hold the Firestone Flats fire on the north side of the road. (Jim Blow, photo)
We were fortunate that we had a couple of major advantages - we had water available to be drafted close by from the Jocko River and we had a lot of aircraft that were available to put water and retardant on the fire very quickly. We also had favorable weather and wind on Sunday that really helped with burnout and fire line construction. Dozers and skidgines did a lot of great work over those first two days, along with hand crews and engines that helped knock down spot fires.
The Type 2 incident commander and his operations heads emphasized to the incoming team how much good work was done over the first two days, but I'd like the public to know just how much good work was done by these crews over the first two days. So many men and women were so very focused on working this fire, and protecting people, property and resources. It was truly an honor to work side by side with those dedicated folks.
I especially want everyone to know what a tremendous job Bob McCrea did in leading us all in holding that fire to the 1,570 acres. Not all incident commanders are alike. Fortunately for us, we've got Bob right here in our valley. His common sense, direct approach to safely attacking fire and managing multiple resources epitomizes the ideal incident commander. He's a great listener and he's a big teamwork guy and he puts safety right at the top of the objectives list. But he's also a firefighter who likes to get work done, not stand around and talk about it.
Our Ronan VFD brush truck crews were also fortunate to work side by side with 20-man hand crews from the Division of Fire on the Firestone Flats fire. For example, we worked with Marita Fisher's Ronan #4 hand crew on spot fires and mop-up for several days; my partner, Chris Clary, and I couldn't have been more impressed with the dedication, enthusiasm and hard work ethic of this Division of Fire crew. Nothing makes you appreciate effort more than chinking some line with a hand tool and gridding burned areas on slopes you don't think a goat could navigate. Yet that crew did it with a smile on their face and a positive attitude, all the while thanking us for the water we delivered to their area of the fire.
Marita's crew is just one example of all the hardworking firefighters who make up the Division of Fire - day in and day out. We volunteer fire department crews are proud to be associated with such a top-notch group of firefighters who work so well with us on every fire, big or small. We've always thought of the Division of Fire as a partner, one that works hand-and-glove with us to protect our residents and resources. Trust me when I say it's not that way in all fire districts in our state.
Bob's probably going to get on my case about writing this, but it's important that you know how truly fortunate we are to have firefighters like him and all of the Division of Fire ready to respond and put their butts on the line every day of the fire season.
Next time you get a chance to see one of these brave firefighters, whether it's in line at the grocery store or filling up next to them at the gas station, walk over and shake their soot-marked hand, the hand that may have saved your bacon more times than you know. Thank them for busting their butts chinking line, drafting water and knocking down flames during 16-hour a days so we can continue to enjoy these wonderful valleys we call home.