1 of 5 hurt firefighters still hospitalized in smoky Montana

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

BILLINGS (AP) — Four injured firefighters were released from the hospital and a fifth was being treated Monday at a burn center after a Montana wildfire overran them last week, authorities said.

The update on the federal firefighters’ condition came as a pall of unhealthy smoke settled over much of the state and triggered pollution warnings from health officials.

The firefighters were injured when swirling winds blew a lightning-caused wildfire back on them last week near Jordan. They had been trying to build a defensive line to stop the blaze in the Devils Creek area of Garfield County in central Montana.

The firefighter still being treated — a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee — suffered the most injuries of agency personnel involved the accident but “is making good progress and is in good spirits,” spokesperson Kari Cobb said.

Of the firefighters injured in Montana, two released from the hospital were engine crew members based at the Quemado Ranger District in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, according to Forest Service spokesperson Punky Moore.

The other three are wildlife service crew members based at the Eastern North Dakota Wetland Management District Complex.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said after being sworn in to the post on Monday that the firefighting community was like a family and the pain is felt widely whenever someone gets hurt.

Across the U.S. West this summer, firefighters have confronted an unusually large number of wildfires early in the season as climate change continues to warm the landscape and drought grips most of the region. That’s making it harder to control and put out fires.

The Devils Creek Fire they had been fighting grew overnight Sunday to 17 square miles (45 square kilometers). Crews have been trying to keep it from approaching the nearby Fort Peck Reservoir along the Missouri River.

Investigators from an interagency team were examining the scene of last week’s injuries to better determine what happened, Moore said.

“All we know is that the time of the accident, there was a sudden wind shift and there had been thunderstorms in the area with erratic winds,” she said.

It was unclear when the results of the probe would be released.

With dozens of fires still burning in Montana and nearby states, health officials warned residents to protect themselves from smoke pollution as the air quality deteriorated to unhealthy levels across much of the region.

The poor quality air is expected to linger as temperatures increase. Record-breaking high temperatures that could reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) were forecast for Tuesday in central and eastern Montana and northern Wyoming, the National Weather Service said.

Pollution levels were high enough that officials recommended people limit their outside activities in the cities of Bozeman, Dillon, Frenchtown, Seeley Lake and Broadus.

Slightly better air quality still considered harmful to sensitive groups — such as people with lung disease or asthma — was reported in Missoula, Butte, Billings, Helena, Great Falls, Lewistown and several smaller cities.

Moderate levels of pollution were reported for the the remainder of the state. N95 masks can protect against wildfire smoke but need to fit properly to be effective.