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Fire officials praise response to Eagle Creek Fire

Editor’s note: This version corrects the location where the fire started.

The Hill County Fire Council held a regular meeting Thursday evening, where they discussed, among other things, the Eagle Creek Fire, one of the most smoothly handled large fires in recent memory, as well as new programs and tools for local departments.

Hill County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Amanda Frickel said the fire could have been disastrous, but the response to it was swift and well coordinated by the various departments including those of the local reservations and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The fire started Sept. 7 at a cabin on private land in Chouteau County not far south of Beaver Creek Park in Hill County and rapidly expanded. It was estimated at 2,000 acres the next morning and 7,000 by the afternoon of Sept. 8.

Frickel said it was her first big fire and even though the first night was chaotic and scary because so little was known, it turned out much better than it could have thanks to the departments.

Bear Paw Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Josh Bebee agreed, saying now that snow has finally come to that area even the last few patches left smoldering are out.

“All I can do is thank you guys for everything,” Bebee said.

Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation Area Fire Management Officer Brandon Sandau who attended the meeting, echoed these sentiments.

“Of all the large fires I’ve shown up to in the last few years, this was the smoothest one,” Sandau said.

After discussing the fire the group also heard from Bureau of Land Management Lewistown Duty Officer Don Pyrah, who provided an update on a new system for filing initial reports on fires easily from a phone, a streamlined new system he said back in March that he hopes will be more efficient.

Pyrah said the system has been working extremely well so far and he wants to thank everyone for using it, which will ensure they get critical funding from the federal government.

“I’m super happy with the way it’s working. Still has a few glitches, but it’s much better than it used to be,” he said. “So thanks.”

He said, based on the data they collected, the counties had 147 fires this season, well-below the yearly average of around 200 and close to the 10-year low of 125.

He said, based on the data, about 50 percent of fires were human-caused and 10 percent were naturally occurring, and because of the dramatic difference between those numbers, he suspects a significant majority of the 40 percent of fires which have undetermined causes are human-caused.

Pyrah said given these dramatic figures, he thinks fire fighting in the state is still stuck in a suppression mindset when they need to be thinking more about prevention.

He then introduced the group to Anika Peila of DNRC, who is setting up a new program for fire prevention.

Peila said she’s worked in fire suppression most of her life, but after starting a family shifted more toward prevention work.

Among the projects she’s working on, she said, is the Pines Project in Fort Peck, which is evaluating homes for fire safety, a project that should be done by next summer.

She said she’s also setting up prevention classes around the state, trying to build up her program and get as many people educated on the subject as possible.

“I think it can do a lot of good,” she said.

She said she’s working on classes for young people in Malta, will be holding a class for the schools in Chinook soon, and will eventually make her way to Havre.

Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean suggested they might want to hold an event at Beaver Creek Park before the next fire season, since people from counties all around go there, making it an ideal spot.

Peila said that is a good idea.

In the meantime, Peila said, if the county or its departments ever have specific needs for prevention work, especially in areas particularly vulnerable to wildfires, she’s always willing to set something up.

Sandau said his training this year for the departments will look pretty similar to last year with about half of them being in-person, and the other being remote.

He said he wants to keep at least some of his training in-person, but people really seem to appreciate the convenience of remote training, so they are going to keep doing that even as the pandemic recedes.

The group then went on to discuss more specific issues at the local departments, like the possibility of getting their hands on a new fuel carrier.

Bebee said they have vehicles to carry diesel, but he was thinking about possibly looking into one to carry gas, which some of their equipment does use.

The group spent some time discussing the possible limitations of any given truck or trailer like that, but Pyrah suggested they might consider spending some money to have gas delivered to them, which is something other departments do and could be much more efficient, since a gas carrier would only be used in bigger fires.

He said companies exist with vehicles designed specifically for this kind of thing, charging a delivery fee and a fee for the length of time the fuel truck sits waiting to be used, and if they can do that it would be easier for his organization as well.

The group also briefly discussed the Kremlin and Gildford rural fire departments’ ongoing search for a hybrid fire truck.

Frickel said there is one area in which she feels some improvements could be made in terms of the departments’ performance, which she said is already excellent.

She said she thinks they could strengthen their protocols when it comes to agencies assisting each other and departments need to make sure they are contacting BLM and DNRC and coordinating with them as soon as possible when they arrive on the scene of a large fire.

She said she understands that those initial stages of dealing with those kinds of fires are inherently chaotic, and the departments are already doing a good job, but she feels there is still room for improvement.

Frickel also mentioned that the county’s website is being updated to include things like the dates for events and fundraisers, so if people could keep her up to date on details like those she can make sure they get on the website as soon as possible.

Bebee said the next fundraiser he has coming up is at the Havre Elks Club Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. to get the money to put some finishing touches on the Bear Paw Fire Hall that completed construction earlier this year.

The Everyone Loves a Firefighter food drive for the Havre Food Bank is also next Wednesday from 5:30-8:30 p.m., with firefighters collecting non-perishable food from peoples porches in Havre.


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