Snuffed out 

Wet weather washes away wildfire business

A recent post from Columbia Falls popped up on Craigslist.org, offering to sell $12,000 worth of firefighting gear: a 225-gallon tank with an engine and pump, plus all the hoses, nozzles, increasers, reducers, adaptors, Pulaskis, hard hats and Nomex clothing you'd need to snuff out a blaze.

click to enlarge Missoula-based smokejumper Dan Cottrell peers into the fuselage of a plane that’s been largely idle this summer. “I’ve been fighting fires since ’95, and this is the slowest season I’ve been around,” he says. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • Missoula-based smokejumper Dan Cottrell peers into the fuselage of a plane that’s been largely idle this summer. “I’ve been fighting fires since ’95, and this is the slowest season I’ve been around,” he says.

"I just realized it's not worth hanging on to this stuff if no fires were going to happen," says Ryan Wickland, who's fought fires for more than a decade but counts this past fire season as his last. "Might as well just get rid of it and get out of it. But it sounds like a lot of people are going to be getting out of it, too."

Wickland, 35, started Glacier Forestry in 2005. He bought the equipment and hired six employees to fight the increasingly intense forest fires and reduce fuels around the scores of residences sprouting up in the Flathead Valley's wildland-urban interface. Neither trend, it seemed, would stop. But then Wickland's business plan, like that of so many other western Montana entrepreneurs who over the last several years saw opportunity in wildfire, was washed out with unseasonably wet weather.

In Missoula, for example, more than three inches of rain fell in August, the second wettest August on record. As of September 15, only 33,303 acres have burned in the state, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. That's compared to an average of 417,865 acres over the last 10 years. Most western Montanans welcome the occasional shower during summer's swelter—and the lack of smoke. But for a number of people whose livelihoods depend on fire season, the rain means earnings quickly dry up.

"I've been working in the woods since '95," Wickland says, "and with fire—with not knowing if it's going to happen and with the way the business was with forestry work and how that slowed down to a dead stop—I went to my backup career, which has been a mechanic. So I started an all-Subaru repair shop. And I'm busy as all get-out."

Others haven't been able to keep so busy. Missoula-based Big Sky Mobile Catering, which dispatches mobile kitchens to fire camps around Montana and the West, saw a significant drop in business this summer.

"We have three kitchens," says co-owner Greg Watkiss, "and typically we may be out on average anywhere from 50 to 75 days a year. And this year we've had only two kitchens go out, both of which were out for about seven days. That kind of gives you an idea."

Watkiss' company relies on contracts with the U.S. Forest Service. Since 2000 it's done more than $53 million worth of work for the agency, including more than $23 million during the historic summer of 2003, according to figures from USAspending.gov. But those contracts only get paid when the work is performed.

"We get no stand-by wage, no subsistence—whatever you want to call it—from the federal government at all," Watkiss says.

Boom and bust, he says, is the nature of the business.

"You just have to look at the averages, look at the numbers, and go from there," he says.

Whitefish's Rocky Mountain Transportation often supplies buses to transport firefighters. Since 2000, the business earned $508,335 worth of contracts with the Forest Service. Over the last three years it's received nothing, according to USAspending.gov.

Missoula's Crown Beverage supplies fire camps with bottles of water. In 2006 and 2007, it had Forest Service contracts worth $57,026. The last two years, not a dime, says owner Clancy Kenck.

And then there are the firefighters themselves. Smokejumper Seth Hansen says he and his colleagues rely heavily on overtime pay.

"And that ends up being a lot of work and a lot of extra money," he says.

But this year Hansen expects to earn about 250—300 hours' worth of overtime pay, compared to the 900—1000 hours' worth he's pocketed in the past.

One of the few fire-dependent businesses that appears to have weathered Montana's rainy weather is Missoula's Neptune Aviation Services. The company, which has earned almost $96 million in Forest Service contracts over the last 10 years, counted all nine of its air tankers in action last week, including six fighting fires in California.

"It's business as usual," says information officer Mike Pfau.

State agencies are also breathing easy. Montana State Forester Bob Harrington says the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will likely spend no more than $4 million this season, well below the average over the last 10 years of about $20 million. It means there'll be plenty left in the $40 million fire suppression account the Legislature created in 2007.

"There was every likelihood when that account was created that if we had another season like '06 or '07 that we could've burned through that money in one fire season," Harrington says. "But as it is now...we're going to be able to go into next season with a fair amount of reserves."

But, as Montanans well know, the landscape could change as quickly as the local weather.

"It's a natural cycle," Wickland says. "People got all hot and heavy after the '03 fires, they all put their contracts in and everybody and their brother got involved with it. And now there's nothing for anybody. So it's really going to be a huge year to see what happens. Everybody's telling me they're just going to get out."

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