3 wildfire



By Jon Trapp

It was a beautiful day on the Oregon coast. It began early with me walking from the campsite to the coffee shop with my dog. The family was still fast asleep. Once my mug was loaded up with hot caffeine, I walked to the beach for a few moments of zen before the day’s activities kicked off. I listened to the sounds of waves crashing on the beach and watched a whale swimming near the haystack (one of the many rock formations that rise out of the ocean along the coast). Life was good. It was Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

I had heard there was a small human-caused wildfire south of my hometown of Red Lodge, Montana, but I wasn’t particularly worried. Early season fires in the forested areas of Montana typically are easily controlled with relatively low fire intensity. Hell, that’s exactly why I take my family vacation before July (when fire activity really starts picking up).

The sun wasn’t very high in the sky before my phone started lighting up with increasing messages of growing concern. The fire, which started on June 13, had grown from 200 to 2,000 acres in the last day. The initial photos started coming in and I thought, “Damn, that’s a real fire, and it’s not even fire season yet!” The flame lengths, fire intensity and rate of spread were unusual for June. As a fire behavior analyst on a national team, I knew where to get the information I needed to predict the fire behavior in the upcoming operational periods.

I popped open my laptop in the camper, connected to the wi-fi and got to work. I told my family I would catch up with them on the beach after I got a better idea of what was happening near our hometown. I typically start assessing the same factors that a brand-new firefighter should be looking at: fuels; weather; and topography.

Here’s what I saw: FUELS

The primary fuel on Mount Maurice was 100-plus year old lodgepole pine with some Douglas fir and grass and sagebrush on the surrounding foothills. With decent snowpack, the dead fuels on the mountain would retain enough moisture to resist moderate to high fire intensity this time of year. But this year we didn’t have any decent snowpack, and, in fact, our area of Montana was in a long-term drought. Precipitation from Jan. 1 through June 15 was one to three inches below normal. Fuel sampling by the Beartooth Ranger District on June 10 showed dead fuel moisture for 1,000-hour fuels at 10 per cent. Ouch! In our area, we start getting concerned when 1,000-hour fuel moisture drops below 13 per cent. What about live fuels? Lodgepole and Douglas fir are just starting to come out of dormancy in June, resulting in some of the lowest live fuel moistures of the year. Live fuel moisture for lodgepole was as around 100 per cent, with Douglas fir even lower; compare that to more than 200 per cent live fuel moisture during green up.


The National Weather Service in Billings issued a redflag warning that was in effect from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on June 15. Uh oh. Red-flag warnings are usually a combination of high winds, high temps and low relative humidity. This warning was forecasting winds at 15 to 25 miles per hour from the southwest, with gusts to 35, near record-breaking temperatures and relative humidity as low as seven per cent. Double uh oh. Things were lining up for a real rodeo and it wasn’t even the fourth of July!


The fire had started in Robertson Draw, which is on the eastern edge of the rugged Beartooth Mountains. Although the fire had started near a dirt road, it quickly grew upslope and was difficult to access by firefighters on the ground. The continuous fuels and complex terrain limited options for control lines. The forecasted winds were set to align with topography for a big fire day on June 15.

As I looked at the fire behavior models, I knew it was going to be a big day. My wife asked if I needed to fly home. I was torn by my obligations to my family and to the fire department and community. I pulled the extended weather forecast and started running the numbers. The models showed that fire spread would slow down in the days to come. By the time I would be home, fire activity would be greatly diminished. I decided to stay. Besides, with the way things were going, it was looking like I’d be out on fires for the rest of the summer.

As the sun came up the morning of June 16, the fire had grown to more than 20,000 acres; it was fueled by a perfect alignment of fuels, weather, and topography. My phone had been blowing up all night with pictures of flames seen from town. Some friends had to evacuate their home and ended up watching the fire from the hot tub at our house. It sounded like an awesome show!

The fire had started in Robertson Draw, which is on the eastern edge of the rugged Beartooth Mountains. Although the fire had started near a dirt road, it quickly grew upslope and was difficult to access by firefighters on the ground. The continuous fuels and complex terrain limited options for control lines.
Moving Forward

The wildland fire service does a great job learning from our experiences. So, what can we take away from a fire like the Robertson Draw fire?

We have had this beaten into our heads over the last few years, but the climate is changing at an alarming rate. Bigger fires, more intense fires, more frequent fires and yes, the fire season is lengthening. We must fully acknowledge this and plan for it.

Fire managers need to have their radar up year-round, not just during the fire season. The Beartooth Ranger District did a great job of this, recognizing early warning signs in June 2021; that’s why there were fuel samples taken on June 10 (three days before the fire started).

Fire managers must continue the effort to extend the working period of seasonal firefighters, aircraft, dispatchers, and other essential personnel. Initial incident commanders on the Robertson Draw fire recognized that more resources were needed and ordered them, but pickings were slim. Most air resources and hand crews were already committed on fires in the southwest. Only two helicopters were available in Montana when the Robertson Draw fire started. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, by mid-June 2021 the United States was approaching 29,000 fires, which was over the average by about 4,000.

Fire managers need an adaptive initial attack strategy. As we know, we have done a pretty good job of suppressing fires over the last century, especially low-intensity fires – we knock them down hard and fast. But we need to consider letting those low-intensity fires burn when conditions are right and resources are available. Firedependent forests need frequent low- to moderateintensity fire to remove the steadily accumulating amounts of dead and regenerating fuels. This applies to federal, state, tribal and private lands.

Fuels management. Prescribed fire and fuel mitigation work is essential. I know firefighters know this, but we have to keep pushing the message to the public. We must highlight successes with fuel-reduction work and own our failures. When a prescribed fire gets away, we need to identify why and publicize how we are going to fix the problem in the future. Well-executed prescribed fire and fuel-mitigation work not only reduces hazardous fuels, but also helps to improve species diversity, forest health and resilience. We must blow our own horns and publicize the thousands of prescribed fires that go well and meet objectives!

We shouldn’t be surprised by our changing fire climate. We should approach all fires, regardless of the time of year, with the same question: What’s going on with fuels, weather, and topography? We also need to evaluate weather and fuels year-round, not just during the fire season. We must increase our capacity to mitigate hazardous fuels and to respond.

Jon Trapp is an Air Force veteran who served as a captain in the United States, Asia and Europe. After active duty, Trapp used the GI Bill to get a master’s degree focusing on carnivore and wolf ecology. Trapp worked on multiple state and federal wolf-management programs in the southwest and the northern Rockies. When the opportunity to become a career firefighter/paramedic presented itself, Trapp took it. He is now an assistant chief, leading Fire and SAR operations in Montana. Trapp also serves on a national incident management team as a fire behavior analyst and continues to guide wolf tracking trips into Yellowstone National Park.