They’re heading south into the smoke, Montana firefighters answering California’s call for help managing the often unmanageable.
Mike Bowman is seasoned in these long-distance hauls. He’s a captain for Missoula Rural Fire and hazmat coordinator for this region of Montana. But he becomes an engine boss when he goes to fight wildland fires.
His four-person Type 1 crew returned home a week ago from a 12-day stint on the SCU Lightning Complex south of San Francisco.
Now almost fully contained, the SCU had charred 396,000 acres and was the second-largest wildfire complex in California when Bowman, Libby Hooper, Nathan Lapinski and Pat Lorenson left for home on Labor Day weekend. In a matter of days it was relegated to third place as the August Complex burning in the Coast Range of Northern California blew up to an unprecedented 746,000 acres.
On Friday, more fire crews from Missoula Rural, Missoula City and other Montana towns jumped in engines and water tenders to head back to a Golden State blackened by the biggest fire season in state history.
“You think about your own family dialing 9-1-1 and not getting anybody to help. That’s scary to me,” said Bowman, 44, a 20-year veteran with Missoula Rural. “I’m in a position where I can help, and all of us have that mentality that we need to help our brothers and sisters. We need to help these communities because we’ve needed that help up here.”
Bowman spoke Thursday from inside a bay at Station 5 in Lolo. Three years ago fire crews from California and as far away as Maine camped on the ballfields just outside the station to fight the deadly Lolo Peak fire.
According to the mutual assistance agreement instituted three years ago, California pays the Montana firefighters a rate based on national wildland standards.
“Firefighters make pretty good money on a fire,” Missoula Rural Fire chief Chris Newman said. “They’re working longer shifts, and they’re working every day. The nice thing is the fire district gets paid for the apparatus, which helps our revenue stream. We also get paid for backfill,” the shifts others at home man to make up for those in California.
“It wouldn’t be fair to our taxpayers for us to be losing money to California,” Newman said. “But there’s another side to that. When the scat hits the fan here, California comes to help us too.”
Hooper, 36, is the district’s lone full-time female firefighter and the second in the department’s history. Like Bowman, she’s a qualified engine boss. Both are married and left behind spouses for more than two weeks to help California out.
Lapinski and Lorenson are younger single men, former resident firefighters who recently joined the department full time. Their time in California was invaluable in working on “task books” for wildland fire certification, Lapinski as an engine boss and Lorenson for a firefighter I position.
The Missoula Rural crew headed south on Aug. 23 in a fire-engine red Type I engine. They met up with others in a Montana Type I task force from Big Sky, Columbus, Belgrade, Livingston and a five-man task force leader from Missoula City Fire. Jon Veale headed that crew that included Ahri Cornelius, engine boss Brent Meyers, his brother Blake Meyers and Ryan Glibbery.
The task force’s tasks in California were not dramatic, Bowman allowed. The SCU Complex went from 10-15% contained when they arrived to almost fully contained when they left. The Montana contingent was based in Gilroy, a city of some 49,000 located 20 miles southeast of San Jose and 15 miles inland from Monterey Bay. They spent a few days at base camp on 24-hour alert for new fires. The rest of their time was the more familiar 12-hour shifts on mop-up and structure protection. The latter involved work in Henry Coe State Park, northern California’s largest.
“The urgency for us and for California and local resources was there are so many fires everybody’s stretched thin, so the heightened awareness was for new fires,” Bowman said.
Hooper was invaluable. She knows California fires. Before she was a firefighter-paramedic for Frenchtown Rural Fire and, starting two years ago, at Missoula Rural, she spent six years with the U.S. Forest Service, two of them in southern California fighting wildland fires.
“Coming from (Montana) it was very, very different,” she said. “In central and southern California, you’re going to see fire behavior and fire activity like you won’t see anywhere else in the country.”
Fuels are typically brush or grass and, by this time of year, dried brush and grass.
“If you don’t catch it right away, it’s gone,” Hooper said. “You don’t have the luxury of extra time that we sometimes get here if it gets hung up in heavier fuels and Doug fir and Ponderosa pine. Those aren’t the primary carriers of fire.”
Between the time when Bowman, Hooper and their Montana task force left Gilroy for the two-day drive home on Labor Day Sunday and when the latest Treasure State contingent headed south five days later, fire-blackened acres in California jumped from a record 2 million to a mind-boggling 3 million.
Their 14-day assignment, plus two days travel time on each end, was ended two days early.
“We were shocked that they sent us home, just based on the new fires that were popping up,” Bowman said.
But theirs not to wonder why …
Hooper specializes in emergency medical response at Missoula Rural Fire. But she said wildland fire fighting is special.
“It’s an important aspect of our job,” Bowman agreed. “It’s what we do. We like to provide those services wherever we can, whenever we can.”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.