The new fire and aviation manager for U.S. Forest Service Region 1 hasn’t even been in office a week and he already has a tactical challenge scheduled on his calendar this summer.
Ralph Rau will have to move his command post from the old regional headquarters in downtown Missoula to the new base at Fort Missoula on Aug. 1, the customary start of Montana’s active fire season.
“I haven’t even unpacked all the boxes,” Rau said Wednesday in his sparsely furnished space on Pine Street. “But things are already picking up in the eastern part of our zone. We already have all of our Hotshot crews committed.”
Nevertheless, Rau’s expecting a slightly better start to the new job than last summer at his post as deputy forest supervisor for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest across the border in Idaho. That forest logged more than 250 forest fires, including 25 large incidents.
“There were only two or three communities in there that weren’t evacuated or under evacuation order last summer,” Rau said. “That puts communities under a lot of stress. We recognize that.”
In his new post, Rau will oversee firefighting activity across 25 million acres of Montana, North Dakota and parts of Idaho and South Dakota. He also has a leadership role working with other state and federal land managers who share fire responsibilities.
“Ralph is very familiar with the role fire plays in the health of national forests,” Region 1 Forester Leanne Marten said in an announcement of Rau’s transfer. “His practical experience on several forests made him a very competitive candidate to oversee fire operations in the Northern Region.”
Rau served four years in the Marine Corps and worked in private timber management before taking on a 33-year career in the Forest Service. His time with the agency included stints as a smokejumper, district ranger and timber management assistant.
This summer’s fire forecast for the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana expects a “normal” level of activity. While the region’s snowpack has melted somewhat sooner than average, late spring rains have helped keep the countryside moist. Rau said he expects some significant fires to appear, but probably not with the intensity of what’s going on in New Mexico, California and Arizona now. Southeastern Montana was under a Red Flag weather warning on Tuesday with high fire potential, but conditions had softened by Wednesday.
“Given the last fire season, I hope folks in western Montana have paid attention to making their homes safer,” Rau said. “It’s not too late to do some due diligence.”