Caleb Schreiber, assistant fire management officer for the Bozeman Hebgen Lake Ranger District shows the difference and distance between the small controlled burn to the south and the over 600 acre wildlife to the north that started in the canyon on Thursday. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Investigation underway

Wildfire in the canyon

Six hundred fifty acres of United States Forest Service and Fish, Wildlife and Parks land were ablaze this past week near Big Sky. The tally of scorched acres climbed significantly after an aircraft was able to gps the fire. No private land or structures were damaged.

It was only a few months ago that Big Sky Fire Department (BSFD) Chief Greg Megaard shared his biggest concern for the community in an interview with LPL: a late season fire after the land had dried out and before winter provided its protective blanket of snow. He thought it might come in the form of a cigarette butt carelessly tossed out of a car window or the heat from a catalytic converter on a car driving through tall grass.

“Controlled Burn Ahead” signs greeted motorists on Hwy. 191 on Nov. 5 due to a 13 acre burn to assist an aspen restoration effort. Calls from residents started flowing into emergency services – something seemed amiss; the fire heading north on the east side of Hwy. 191 did not seem controlled.

Something also seemed amiss to Caleb Schreiber, assistant fire management officer for the Bozeman Hebgen Lake Ranger District. As he worked his way down the hill from the prescribed burn, he noted the distance between their work and the fire that kicked off just south of the River House on Hwy. 191.

Due to the “great distance between the prescribed fire and the wildfire I requested we get a fire investigator. It just did not seem to me that it was likely that our prescribed fire would have caused the wildfire at that point,” he said during the Virtual Town Hall Meeting on Nov. 6.

Metrics and tests, months of planning, calls to the National Weather Service, additional planning the day-of, the multiyear project with the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for aspen restoration was going as planned from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Then forest service personnel were notified of a blaze near the highway.

That Thursday afternoon a cohort of emergency personnel descended upon the gravel parking lot adjacent to the road to Porcupine as a Forest Service employee keenly watched the path of the fire with binoculars and radioed updates. The parking area became a command center as United States Forest Service, BSFD and Gallatin County Sheriff ’s Office personnel strategized.

Then deemed “The Porcupine Wildfire” it was managed under unified command by the USFS and BSFD. Crews from Yellowstone Club Fire Department and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation were also on the scene. Structure protection efforts immediately commenced.

Concern mounted, business owners braced, residents contacted friends with homes in the area. The Gallatin County Sheriff ’s Office gave 33 pre-evacuation warnings to owners of a number of structures near the fire perimeter shortly before a public safety alert was issued stating the fire was “just south of Big Sky, spreading north rapidly and is now across Ophir School.”

Fire crews toiled over the next couple of days, winds cooperated, patches of snow assisted in mitigation before a full blanket of snow descended.

The fire was ephemeral.

“That fire grew rapidly, but also with the weather, the type of fuels that were there, it also diminished rapidly,” Schreiber said. “It ran out of grass – the grass and the light flashy fuels that were exposed by the sun. There were still pockets of snow holding up in there… along the edges of the timber. In those areas the fire very quickly diminished and we were able to pretty easily suppress the fire at that point without it growing any additional acres.”

Corey Lewellen, district ranger on the Bozeman Ranger District also noted the behavior of the prescribed burn during the virtual town hall.

“Part of the reason we ordered that investigation as it relates to the prescribed fire – things were going as planned. Things went as planned. We had pretty minimal fire behavior… ground fire behavior, we didn’t have any kind of what we call a ‘slop over’ where your prescribed fire goes outside your area,” he said.

He explained that slop over sometimes means a stand of timber or trees want to torch up and start spotting.

“That never happened with our prescribed fire and then that combined with the fact that we had no other spots showing up and the fact that the wildfire was a mile away all led to that investigation,” he said. “We want to be very transparent. At the end of the day there is risk with prescribed fire. We fully own that and we fully accept that. We are going to continue to work with the sheriff ’s office in the investigation process.”

Sheriff Brian Gootkin noted that the investigation is ongoing and his office is working side-by-side with the forest service.

“We have good information and when we have a conclusion upon the investigation we will be back to the public letting them know what we found,” he said. “We are working with the forest service. We will find out what happened and we will let you know. We just ask that you be patient.”

The hour long Virtual Town Hall Meeting can be viewed on the Custer Gallatin National Forest Facebook page.

Corrected as of 10:44 a.m., Nov. 12: While Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) contributed funding to prescribed burns in the area back in 2016 and forest thinning projects in 2017, RMEF staff checked the organization's project reports and have not contributed to any such projects there recently, according to RMEF director of communication Mark Holyoak.  

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