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By Alex Ross 

Dispute over fire management continues


October 5, 2017

Some locals and officials that fought the East Fork Fire are still disputing what led to the fire’s rapid and erratic spread from a relatively small fire on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation Aug. 27 to a blaze that burned nearly 22,000 acres in the Bear Paw Mountains.

A lack of clear command and control caused by a shortage of available resources impacted the response to the fire, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Incident Commander Don Pyrah said at a meeting requested by local resident Bob Sivertsen, in the Timmons Room of the Hill County Courthouse Monday.

County officials, along with volunteer firefighters, ranchers and DNRC personnel were at the meeting. Sivertsen has held a series of meetings about the fire.

Pyrah said when the East Fork Fire was raging, other fires also were burning and resources were limited.

“I showed up with me, that is all I had,” Pyrah said.

He added that normally he would come to a fire with with more personnel and equipment that could have brought command and control to the situation.

“The problem was, I didn’t have anything,” Pyrah said.

Because of that lack of command and control structure, freelancing — where people operate independently and outside a coordinated plan — was widespread, he said.

Sivertsen asked Pyrah when he had become incident commander.

Theron Oats of the Chippewa Cree Tribe’s Forestry Department was initially the incident commander, Pyrah said.

Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson said Oats was in control until Bob Jones and then Eli Groom, both of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, took over and later federal type 1 incident management team member Kim Martin.

Pyrah said that after taking a few days off, he returned to the fire and on Sept. 8 command was transferred to him.

Sivertsen said that Oats told him that after the fire had left the reservation he no longer had jurisdiction.

Oats, who was not at the meeting, said this morning that he had identified himself as incident commander at the time, but was told by somebody that he did not have jurisdiction when the fire left the reservation. He said he could not identify who told him he did not have jurisdiction. Oats added that some of the volunteer firefighters may not have understood the chain of command.

Kody Peterson, chief of the Kremlin Volunteer Fire Department, said Monday that if someone approaches a fire and they are the first ones on the scene, that person is technically in command. Duties are then transferred later.

Sivertsen said he was with the ranchers on the first Wednesday of the fire and they were north of Moses Mountain. Despite the presence of fire, there was no personnel or equipment, he said.

“We had a strong wind that was coming out of the north and just blowing smoke to the south,” Sivertsen said. “There was no activity and we knew the thing was going to blow. Had the ranchers had the opportunity they would have gone in and dozed a fire line and there would have been a backfire set that morning.”

“There was no activity on that fire.” Sivertsen said.

Oats had told them the day before that the fire had gone into beetle infested timber, and it would be allowed to burn, Peterson said.

Oats said today that he did not tell anybody to burn anything during the fire and there was already more fire then they could control.

The ranchers, Sivertsen said, are still scratching their heads and say the fire could have been controlled on the reservation.

“The whole problem that I am trying to reiterate again is that we lacked command and control structure,” Pyrah said.

There can be resources and personnel ready to go to work, he said, but if they do not have the management capabilities to coordinate and integrate them into the same plan it will not work.

“Communication is the key thing,” Ted Solomon said, who owns a company that contracts out fire fighting equipment and crews.

During 30 years in the firefighting business, Solomon said, he could never gain control in a fire without communications. He said that, typically, fire crews are broken into four or five divisions, each with a division boss. Solomon said that after the East Fork Fire, Solomon said, they have to create a plan about how they are going to set up divisions, especially when a fire reaches 700 or 800 acres.

“The volunteers have to do a plan and say, ‘Hey, when we go on a fire we have to have division bosses, so lets get them appointed ahead of time.’”

Sivertsen said the ranchers and volunteers were the ones who were widely credited with putting the fire out and were not listened to.

Pyrah said that normally he would come to a fire with more personnel and equipment that could have brought more structure to the situation.

“The problem was, I didn’t have anything,” Pyrah said.

Dave Molitor asked why were all the water trucks and equipment locked up on Beaver Creek Highway.

Pyrah said he could not answer that, because it was before he had taken command.

Bob Molitor said at one point water support had been pulled from him when he was heading to one location to fight the fire that Wednesday night.

He said he asked Josh Bebee of Bear Paw Volunteer Fire Department why he called the water support back and Bebee told him DNRC gave the order.

Bebee said Wednesday that at one point in time trucks may have been asked to stand back and regroup due to safety reasons but he can’t recall anything else.

Pyrah said he was not in command at the time, but that Molitor, who said he did not have a radio at the time, should have been communicated with about why that happened.

Sivertsen asked Pyrah why meetings, when volunteers were fed and briefed, were scheduled at 7 a. m. at incident command center when they could have been conducted earlier in the day.

The time, Sivertsen said, was “a sore spot with the ranchers” because that time would have been better spent on the fire lines.

Pyrah said it was important fire fighters get fed.

Sivertsen said he would have fed them at 3 a.m. and noon.

“They could have done their best work early in the morning,” Sivertsen said.

Pyrah said in an interview Wednesday that much of the timing of the meetings had to do with the logistics of getting food and fuel to the scene.

“The earliest we were able to get those meals there was about 6:30 am. That was one of the constraints we were working under,” he said.

He added that when the night shift comes on, they would eat at 6:30 p.m and be briefed at 7 p.m. Volunteers would then get a chance to go to the front line to see what is happening before they begin their work.

At the end of the meeting, Sivertsen asked Pyrah if he was willing to move forward.

Pyrah said he already had. He added that people continue to assign blame for things that happened based on the scale, the size and the magnitude of all of these things that were going on and were quite commonly repeated throughout Montana during the entire summer.


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