What Tyler Brothers saw out his helicopter window last week sounds like the plot of an old melodrama.
He was flying 1,000 feet above the Bielenburg forest fire east of Deer Lodge, and he couldn't see the flames. The fire had boiled up, but cloaked itself so no one could see its boundary or direction. Half a dozen campers were down in the forest, surrounded by red beetle-killed trees and cut off from the firefighters.
"It's fire behavior you don't see too often," Brothers said of the Bielenburg's season finale. And it's fire behavior that's giving U.S. Forest Service land managers a lot to think about this winter.
In the last week of September, at least six big forest fires made major runs across western Montana. Several of them tripled or quadrupled their acreage in one or two days of rampage. The Bielenburg jumped from 188 acres to 1,956. A frequent factor was the presence of "red-and-dead" beetle-killed trees that burned from crown to crown, sending firefighters scrambling to find safety.
"Once a fire turns into a crown fire, the reality is there's not a lot we can do with it," said Jeff Seacrest, who was incident commander on the MacDonald Pass fire above Helena that same weekend. "It's putting out so much energy there's not a lot we can do to stop it. We can have all the helicopters and tankers we want and we can't do anything to it. With the amount of beetle kill in the Helena Valley, we know this sort of event will happen again."
The summer of 2009 presented a bunch of smoking conundrums for Montana firefighters. There was record-breaking rain in the middle of August. But by fall, a Forest Service prediction tool called the "energy release component" was the highest it had been in 20 or 30 years for many parts of the state.
Wildfires that seemed to be down and out in August, like the Kootenai Creek blaze near Stevensville and the Bielenburg, came back for a few more rounds in September. In the Bitterroot Valley, that meant the annoyance of smoky skies all summer long. In the Deer Lodge Valley, it nearly meant tragedy.
For Brothers and pilot Matt Conant above the Bielenburg fire, the afternoon of Sept. 26 just wouldn't quit. Even the smoke was weird.
"For some odd reason, when it got to highway, it would lift up over the highway, and then curl back down," Brothers said of the smoke column. "People were thinking it was spotting over the highway, eight miles away."
And then, Brothers saw the Racetrack campground, and two trucks parked there.
The wind was gusting over 40 mph, knocking the helicopter around. The fire was a mile from the campground and moving that way fast. Fire incident commander Jon Agner ordered the helicopter crew to find the campers and prepare them for evacuation. Powell County Sheriff's Deputy Ron Cain also drove into the woods to lead them out.
The firefighters lost radio contact with Cain. Fire burned over the Racetrack campground. Brothers eventually found Cain, two fathers and two kids three miles farther into the forest, where they were surrounded by beetle-killed trees and no safety zone. Agner was able to drive up the drainage and lead the group down the blackened road.
As evening came on and the fire calmed down, Brothers made another mapping circuit of the fire. This time, he saw a truck parked at a small Forest Service cabin still farther up the Racetrack drainage. A big tree had fallen across the truck's bed, immobilizing it.
The helicopter crew scouted several ATV trails that wove amongst the lakes at the head of the drainage, but couldn't find the truck's occupants before darkness forced them back to base. Forest Service law enforcement rangers had to drive up the road in the dark to find the two campers, cut their truck free and lead them out. The ground was so hot, it scorched the paint on their vehicles.
"We're seeing fire behavior that surprised us," said Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Supervisor Dave Meyers. "We're having more severe burning fires, they're larger, they start sooner, and they go longer. We usually don't see crown fires in late September."
The Bielenburg fire was on Meyers' territory, and its behavior will get a lot of study in this winter's "after-action" strategy review. After the August rains snuffed its big flames, the remaining fire was put on "resource benefit" status. The goal was to let it burn some of the surplus fuel in the woods, create new breaks in the forest that will be harder for another fire to jump, and reap the ecological rejuvenation that comes when fire returns nutrients to the landscape.
A big question will be the balance point where managing a fire for long-term resource benefits conflicts with short-term public safety.
"If you're managing a fire from mid-July, you'll more than likely be living with that until mid-September," Meyers said. "With the Bielenburg, we were concerned it was running through private land, and running through the campground. That sort of fire behavior did surprise us, and nobody likes surprises, especially in firefighting.
"When we manage a fire for resource benefits, we don't want to put the public in harm's way, and we don't want to put risk on the firefighters. The benefits are we reduce fuels so we don't have that that 200,000-acre big gobbler. This one came out OK, but we need to learn more about it."
Firefighter safety is a growing concern, too, according to retired incident commander Dan Bailey of Missoula.
"We're seeing more and more situations where first responders are put into difficult situations," Bailey said. "It's a huge issue, and a politically sensitive issue."
An incident commander's first priority is firefighter safety, Bailey said. Next is protection of structures and private property. As fires become more radical, those goals come into conflict.
"You've got the wildland-urban interface, with wildfires starting by homes," he said. "When on top of that you add bug kill, it's a whole different scenario. Take those dead trees and critical burning conditions, especially wind, and that fire goes right into the canopy of those trees. Instead of torching an acre here or there, you have a thousand acres of bug kill go whoosh. It's almost impossible to deal with. And it's not just here in Montana, but Idaho and Colorado and northern California."
In a few more years, the situation will evolve yet again. Dead trees will lose those red needles within three to five years. The bare-branch trees tend to be less burnable than either green live trees or red dead ones.
That's good news for firefighters, at least for the next decade or so. After that, those dead stands will fall down and load the forest floor with dry fuel, creating a different kind of fire threat - and a different forest management problem.
What to do with forest fuel is both an economic and political matter. Logging beetle-killed timber is a low-profit endeavor. Forest thinning typically demands tax-dollar subsidies, and comes with environmental consequences to the forest floor. Leaving the forest alone leaves the public exposed to increasing fire hazards.
"With the changing environment, we've got to figure how do we deal with it," said Seacrest, the MacDonald Pass incident commander. "Do we do prescribed burning when it burns differently? If we do fuels reduction, how big an area do we treat to reduce fuels enough to stop a crown fire? I hear the Canadians are lighting some areas on fire just to get a better gauge on how it all works."
In the end, the MacDonald Pass fire only burned 170 acres. But, said Seacrest, "that fire was in the head end of the municipal watershed for Helena. And there was a pretty good fuel avenue all the way to Helena. If the winds had been different, it's a good chance it could have gone there."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.