Working closely with all partners involved in incident response for all types of situations is what makes for effective action. PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG SKY FIRE DEPARTMENT

The first two hours

Big Sky Fire Department hosts tabletop exercise for Jack Creek area fire

On June 16, a day before a tree caught fire near the South Fork Loop in Big Sky, Mont., the Big Sky Fire Department (BSFD) in collaboration with the Gallatin County Sheriff ’s Office (GSCO) conducted a tabletop exercise scenario regarding a fire and evacuation in the Jack Creek area.

The U.S. Forest Service created fire progression maps for the exercise that placed the origin of the fire below the Moonlight Basin golf course. Risk factors included southwesterly winds that could push the fire into the bottom side of Moonlight and the fact that a fire in that location is not easily identifiable or accessible.

Through the six-hour scenario, different departments talked through how each could work together to respond in the first one to two hours of the fire, focusing on evacuation then structures. Deputy Fire Chief of the Big Sky Fire Department (BSFD) Dustin Tetrault explained that in those first couple of hours, the initial attack period, mutual aid from Ennis or Bozeman would not yet be on the scene.

“The objectives were for ourselves and GCSO in conjunction with Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin, because they have their own security forces, and we also had the Yellowstone Club there as well because their fire department is kind of the first mutual aid for assistance,” Tetrault said. These initial responders would notify homeowners of the emergency and come up with a strategy for marking evacuated homes.

“For a wildland fire event, we really work hand-in-hand with the fire department,” GCSO, Canyon Section, Sergeant Dan Haydon said. “They obviously have the expertise to know when something is a big deal and then they help us to make sure that we can prioritize which homes we need to contact, whether it be to warn the people about the event, or to provide them with an evacuation order if we think that they are really going to have the fire bearing down on them.”

At hour two, Tetrault said, BSFD could start pulling focus away from evacuation and turn it towards fighting the fire after additional resources—helicopters, air tankers, extra fire departments, etc.—make it to the scene. Firefighters may pick different landmarks, like Jack Creek Road or the golf course, to use to box the fire into an area, hoping for better control of the burn, and use retardants to slow it down.

“The fire department’s mission is really life safety, number one, and then property, number two. So, you have to think about evacuation. That’s life safety,” Tetrault said. Once people are safe and more resources allow BSFD to step into a firefighting role, they can start to consider which houses could be saved and spot fires that could be put out.

Tetrault mentioned it was nice to hear how the different clubs’ guest services work, and how they would be able to notify homeowners of a fire threat. In part of the after-action review during the tabletop exercise, the responders assembled in Big Sky talked about how to engage VRBO homes or homes owned by individuals out-of-state at the time of the fire. One idea was to put an evacuation route or plan into a VRBO welcome packet. Another suggested working with Karst Stage to get people who may not have arrived by car to safety.

The after-action review addressed what those involved in the exercise did well, what the objectives were and where improvements could be made. Developing and maintaining common communication plans, something that would get the clubs, GSCO and BSFD on the same page when it comes to evacuation, was a key takeaway.

Haydon said the resources in Big Sky that respond to emergencies work together on everything from fender benders to big incidents, and that teamwork is crucial when it comes to fighting something as stressful as a wildfire.

Moving forward, the goal is to extend the scenario to hour three or eight and bring in more players to respond. Next year Tetrault hopes to do a bigger exercise with more resources and maybe get to the point of a mock scenario.

“You really can’t get traffic flow data until you start getting cars on the road,” he said. During the Jack Creek exercise, Jack Creek Road was not utilized for much other than Madison County Sheriff Department (MCSD) access. Tetrault explained that Moonlight Basin would keep the gate open and MCSD could assist in keeping people off the road during response.

After the Porcupine Wildland fire in Nov. 2020, two fires already responded to in Big Sky this year and the extensive coverage of dry western climate in the media this spring, community interest in fire safety and prevention may have peaked earlier this year.

 “We’ve been working a lot with wildland risk reduction and different aspects of our program to get people really engaged,” Tetrault said. With preparation, mitigation and communication, the goal is to keep flare ups to a minimum.

As he has been saying on repeat now, for fires in Big Sky, it is not a matter of if but when.

The tabletop exercise was planned for last Wednesday, and the next day the forces involved got to put their discussions of communication and action to the test. Haydon said much of what was discussed during the tabletop exercise was put into practice at South Fork. “What all of our jobs were on the fairly small fire are the same jobs we’re all going to take on a big incident,” Haydon said.

“A big part of protecting the community is not just the fire department and sheriff ’s office, but it’s all members of the community being safe about how they’re putting their campfires out and where they’re using fireworks and thinking about where a firework is going to land,” Haydon said. “All those extra things help to make sure that we never need to use those scenarios in the real world.

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