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Wildfire tactics and strategy-Montana

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  • Wildfire tactics and strategy-Montana

    By COURTNEY LOWERY
    Associated Press Writer
    WEST GLACIER, Mont. (AP) - Incident Commander Joe Stam breathed
    deeply and stepped up to a podium to calmly tell 300 people that
    his team was planning to drop flames in the woods a half-mile from
    some of their homes and businesses.
    Setting a "burnout," like the one on the 14,200 Robert Fire
    isn't unusual to Stam and his elite Alaskan team, or really to
    firefighting in general, but to some in the community, it is
    unnerving. Trying to convince worried citizens it was a good move
    is no easy task.
    The burnout, designed to pull the fire away from Glacier
    National Park headquarters, Apgar Village and West Glacier, is
    something Stam and his elite team from Alaska were painstakingly
    planning for days.
    "We put a lot of thought into these decisions. None of this is
    taken lightly. We don't just say, `Well, let's go burn a whole
    bunch of country,"' he said.
    Stam's team has conducted about two dozen burnouts, some much
    larger than the more than 2,000-acre one they set Tuesday, said
    John See, fire behavior specialist.
    In fact, See said one of the most memorable ones he conducted
    was also in Montana. During the fires in Yellowstone National Park
    in 1988, crews dropped more than 20,000 "balls of flame" around
    the Montana towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate to protect them.
    Many teams use small burnouts to bolster firelines dug by hand
    around the perimeters of fires. But only a few have the resources
    or the opportunities to do big burnouts, like the one near West
    Glacier.
    The Robert burnout, however, has definitely attracted its share
    of controversy and raised eyebrows in the public. In fact, Bill
    Beebe, a fire information officer on the Robert Fire said it
    garnered more heat than he had seen in a while.
    The key is being calm and instilling a sense of order with the
    people affected. After Stam first announced the plan to the public,
    Apgar resident and business owner Monica Jungster demanded to know
    how safe the burnout would be. Looking at a map, she pointed to
    where she understood the proposed burn to be - almost in a direct
    line to her childhood friend's home - not to mention the business
    her mother and father started almost 50 years ago.
    "I'm just cringing," she said.
    After the meeting, Stam found Jungster, sat down with her and
    explained the process simply, but thoroughly. He told her not to
    worry. His operation chiefs are some of the best in the country, he
    said, and the planning was thorough. He did admit though, that they
    were "sweating bullets" when it came time to light the fire.
    "There's a lot of pressure for sure," he said. "This is kind
    of where the buck stops."
    On Monday, the Robert Fire made a run toward U.S. 2, the main
    escape route in the area. Within minutes, a helicopter took off,
    dropping balls of fire above the finger of the blaze that has
    started to close in on the towns.
    That wasn't an easy call to make, Stam said.
    "When things start getting hairy, like on Monday, we all sit
    down with a map with the operations people and I start asking
    questions, like, `What can go wrong?' and then I make a decision,"
    he said. "But you have to know that once you make a decision to
    burn, it's difficult to stop."
    Sometimes, there is no choice.
    "This in here hasn't been burned for years. It's so thick and
    so dense the fire would have ... basically just steamrolled all
    these homes," said division supervisor Clinton Northway, pointing
    to Apgar Village.
    Park officials didn't want bulldozers damaging the land, and
    terrain in some areas was too dangerous for hand crews to work.
    Still, setting a backfire is a hard thing to explain to people.
    Monday, crowds of people, some just evacuated, watched from a
    highway as a column of smoke pointed directly at Apgar. In a matter
    of 45 minutes, it started to billow straight into the air as Stam's
    crew dropped fire to draw the main blaze away from Apgar and West
    Glacier.
    Stam said the maneuver helped protect the towns, but it also
    bought the team some confidence from the community.
    "I feel better now," said Kay Rosengren, who was evacuated on
    Monday. "My comfort is knowing they're a good team. Maybe that's
    because they're willing to level with us."

    (Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
    Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
    Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

    *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
    On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

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