We used to think wildland firefighters hibernated like bears after chasing smoke all summer. 

If so, Mike DeGrosky would like to know why his Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation firefighters have already responded to 38 wildfires by the first week of March.

“It’s sport-burning season as we call it,” the new bureau chief of Fire and Aviation Management said at his Missoula headquarters. “Those fires are all human-caused, and mostly debris burns that get out of control. While the higher elevations are hanging on to something close to average snowpack, there’s no snow below 6,000 feet. Down in the valley bottoms, fire season is already here.”

DeGrosky took the top state fire job in February after 38 years as both a public fire manager and private fire consultant in Wyoming, Wisconsin, Washington and Idaho, as well as Montana. A commemorative rock in his office memorializes dropping 100,000 gallons of water and retardant on the Hellgate Canyon fire east of Missoula in 1985.

“That was my first-ever division supervisor assignment,” DeGrosky said. “They assigned me to a low-intensity division that turned out to be the head of the fire. That was a very crazy three days. A strike team from Minnesota built this really long hose lay to hold one flank of the fire, and the entire hose lay got burned over. This is a piece of that hose.”

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Replacing fire-wrecked supplies like that hose and repairing fire equipment is how DRNC fire workers spend their off-season days. DeGrosky said changing climate conditions and growing human encroachment into fire-prone areas has cut into that down-time.

“They’re already expecting to have a terrible time around the Great Lakes and the Northern Plains states,” he said of the national fire forecasts. “And Billings set a temperature record over the weekend. Now, it could start to rain in June and make everything different. But right now, the call is for significant warmth and continued drought, especially in central and southeast Montana.”

Fires in that part of the state differ from the blazes western Montanans are used to. They often strike grasslands and prairies where a stiff wind can char thousands of acres in an afternoon. That puts huge focus on the fire’s early stages, which in turn highlights one of DeGrosky’s strategic challenges.

“Almost all the initial attack is performed by the counties, and out there, volunteerism is a huge issue,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of counties where you used to have a volunteer fire department with 25 volunteers and a young, vital crop to recruit from. Now, it’s six guys and the average age is 68.”

Drier fire seasons and declining local firefighter pools combine with a third problem on DeGrosky’s strategic horizon: more things to protect.

“Unregulated growth on the urban interface is a huge problem for us,” he said. “We’ve got more and more people living in fire-prone areas. We’re beyond the time where we think about, ‘What if a fire occurs?’ It’s a question of when a fire occurs – not if. Communities need to think about how they can adapt to survive when impacted by fire. Because we often cannot protect those communities.”

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In the shortened off-season, DNRC maintenance crews spend a lot of time repairing or rebuilding wildland fire engines. This winter, 30 rigs are in the shop. Shop foreman Rick Rich said 25 of those will be dispatched to county fire protection services, while five will go to DNRC land offices.

“There’s been a huge change in the fleet over the last 20 years,” Rich said. “Now, we get about 10 years out of a direct-protection engine, and the county folks get about 18 years. It used to be the average-age wildland fire vehicle in the county was 42 years. That’s really hard to find parts for.”

The agency has taken advantage of a lot of military surplus as well. Rich showed off a massive six-axle tanker truck originally designed for recovering broken Bradley Fighting Vehicles. It’s been repurposed to haul 2,600 gallons of water virtually anywhere.

“We’re constantly thinking how we can best position ourselves for what’s coming 10 to 15 years down the line,” DeGrosky said. “That’s what drives us as the fire season gets longer and longer. Now, it seems to end in October and start up again in February.”

Minutes after the interview ended Monday, three wildland fire engines went speeding down Reserve Street, heading to an out-of-control debris fire.

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