By Author(s): Tim Ryan 
Published Sunday, May 1, 2011
| From the May 2011  Issue of FireRescue 
In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), in collaboration with the National Association of State Foresters, began looking for ways to increase mutual understanding and cooperation among local, state and federal resources that operate in the WUI. The objective: to provide enhanced and more efficient cooperation between federal agencies and local government during initial attack on WUI fires.
Ultimately, this concept led to the development of a trial “cross boundary” grant program, which offered grant opportunities to agencies that shared protection responsibilities on federal and private lands. The trial projects were evaluated to determine if they 1) would be effective and 2) could be applied in other areas of the country.
Red Lodge (Mont.) Fire Rescue (RLFR) was selected to participate in the Cross Boundary Grant Program in June 2008. The project proposed to enhance RLFR’s ability to respond to requests for initial attack, perform WUI hazard assessments and carry out hazard mitigation services in and around the Beartooth Ranger District of the Custer National Forest for a period of one year.
Most importantly, the project intended to expand the mutual-aid system, which allows for a large amount of resources during initial attack, further decreasing fire suppression costs. RLFR felt strongly that a closer working relationship with surrounding federal agencies would be mutually beneficial: By increasing readily available resources and the overall experience level of career and volunteer staff, firefighter safety and efficiency would also be greatly enhanced.
The 3 Keys
Through meetings with district fire managers, several mutually beneficial goals were set to ensure the success of the Cross Boundary Program. Three key tasks were also outlined that were to be carried out by RLFR for the duration of the project:
- Provide high-quality initial attack and patrol capability to the Beartooth Ranger District, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and the Bureau of Land Management Southern Zone while also building a base of well-trained and capable local firefighters.
- Target at-risk subdivisions in the jurisdiction and conduct WUI home assessments, public education projects and subdivision evaluations to determine firefighter and public safety. Assessment and education projects would be geared toward making homeowners associations eligible for fuels reduction grant funding and would be coordinated with existing USFS fuel-reduction projects.
- Identify, map and categorize WUI areas by priority, beginning with municipal government watershed areas. This would assist the USFS with projects related to the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) and would work in conjunction with hazard areas identified in the 2005 Carbon County Community Wildfire Protection Plan to develop treatment options that protect the watershed areas of RLFR’s jurisdiction.
All program goals were met during or between the 2008 and 2009 fire seasons, and had a positive effect the Beartooth Ranger District and surrounding areas. Below is a detailed account of the three key objectives of the RLFR, and the outcome of each.
Initial Attack Capability
RLFR participated in initial-attack activities on 23 fires during the first two seasons of the program. The Cascade Fire, which became a Type 1 incident immediately after initial attack and one week after the start of the grant program, was staffed for several days by RLFR Cross Boundary personnel. RLFR staff also provided invaluable assistance in patrolling areas that the USFS was unable to respond to while on other fire assignments in the area.
Additionally, the Cross Boundary staff assisted the Beartooth Ranger District in the treatment of several acres for fuel mitigation.
Throughout Montana’s Southern Zone, Cross Boundary crews assisted with 31 initial- and extended-attack fires on private, state and federal lands. The Cross Boundary crew was often used in smaller incidents that required moderate extended-attack activity. Because the grant funded seasonal firefighters, crews were able to assist federal and state fire agencies regularly in initial-attack and mop-up activities that volunteer staff had previously been unable to complete.
Grant funds were used to assist RLFR in providing high-quality training to its career and volunteer staff. This significantly increased the level of training at the department, resulting in the addition of another strike team leader trainee and two more qualified engine bosses.
Public Education/Home Assessment Program
RLFR completed a total of 557 WUI home hazard assessments, 72 on USFS lease land and 485 on private lands that shared a boundary with the USFS or were near enough to the boundary to pose a threat.
RLFR staff members, with the assistance of Beartooth Ranger District fire managers, have met with homeowners associations and have held public meetings to share this information and encourage firesafe practices.
Working closely with the USFS, we identified several high-risk watershed areas. This information has been compiled into a database and mapping program, which is available to interested agencies and is now used as a reference for high-hazard homes and subdivisions in the WUI.
Several other broad-ranging projects were undertaken under the scope of the grant program; however, the most significant lesson learned by RLFR was the fact that by building a cooperative relationship with federal partners in the WUI through the Cross Boundary Grant program, RLFR firefighters could and did increase their skill level as well as their ability to pass on those skills to the rest of the department.
Further, working daily with the USFS allowed RLFR volunteer personnel to improve their level of professionalism and enhance their knowledge of basic firefighting as well as fuel and land-management practices.
Grant funds were used for staff participation in the development of a locally available Type 3 incident management organization (IMO), which is now in the late development stages.
The IMO and local, state and federal fire managers also worked together to develop a website (www.southernzonefire.com) that serves as a clearinghouse of information for fire departments for training events, NWCG publications, fire weather and daily National Interagency Fire Center situation reports.
The concept of increased interagency and “cross boundary” cooperation is nothing new to fire managers. Keeping fires small and suppression costs down has long been a goal of fire managers and national policy makers. By bringing local and federal resources together, a smoother and more efficient collaborative firefighting program has been created between RLFR and the Beartooth Ranger District. Firefighter readiness, interagency cooperation, public education and forward-thinking fire managers all contributed to the ongoing success of the program.
But to call this program “a success” would be understating the true big-picture accomplishments. This program was a great example of what can happen when good ideas are shared among agencies. The resulting cooperation that stems from these ideas and projects facilitates the delivery of real results—fire protection and mitigation—which greatly assists both the firefighters on the front lines and the public. In short, the Cross Boundary Grant Program proves that increased and enhanced interagency cooperation can meet the goals of both local fire managers and national policymakers.
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