By COURTNEY LOWERY
Associated Press Writer
WEST GLACIER, Mont. (AP) - Incident Commander Joe Stam breathed
deeply and stepped up to a podium to calmly tell 300 people that
his team was planning to drop flames in the woods a half-mile from
some of their homes and businesses.
Setting a "burnout," like the one on the 14,200 Robert Fire
isn't unusual to Stam and his elite Alaskan team, or really to
firefighting in general, but to some in the community, it is
unnerving. Trying to convince worried citizens it was a good move
is no easy task.
The burnout, designed to pull the fire away from Glacier
National Park headquarters, Apgar Village and West Glacier, is
something Stam and his elite team from Alaska were painstakingly
planning for days.
"We put a lot of thought into these decisions. None of this is
taken lightly. We don't just say, `Well, let's go burn a whole
bunch of country,"' he said.
Stam's team has conducted about two dozen burnouts, some much
larger than the more than 2,000-acre one they set Tuesday, said
John See, fire behavior specialist.
In fact, See said one of the most memorable ones he conducted
was also in Montana. During the fires in Yellowstone National Park
in 1988, crews dropped more than 20,000 "balls of flame" around
the Montana towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate to protect them.
Many teams use small burnouts to bolster firelines dug by hand
around the perimeters of fires. But only a few have the resources
or the opportunities to do big burnouts, like the one near West
Glacier.
The Robert burnout, however, has definitely attracted its share
of controversy and raised eyebrows in the public. In fact, Bill
Beebe, a fire information officer on the Robert Fire said it
garnered more heat than he had seen in a while.
The key is being calm and instilling a sense of order with the
people affected. After Stam first announced the plan to the public,
Apgar resident and business owner Monica Jungster demanded to know
how safe the burnout would be. Looking at a map, she pointed to
where she understood the proposed burn to be - almost in a direct
line to her childhood friend's home - not to mention the business
her mother and father started almost 50 years ago.
"I'm just cringing," she said.
After the meeting, Stam found Jungster, sat down with her and
explained the process simply, but thoroughly. He told her not to
worry. His operation chiefs are some of the best in the country, he
said, and the planning was thorough. He did admit though, that they
were "sweating bullets" when it came time to light the fire.
"There's a lot of pressure for sure," he said. "This is kind
of where the buck stops."
On Monday, the Robert Fire made a run toward U.S. 2, the main
escape route in the area. Within minutes, a helicopter took off,
dropping balls of fire above the finger of the blaze that has
started to close in on the towns.
That wasn't an easy call to make, Stam said.
"When things start getting hairy, like on Monday, we all sit
down with a map with the operations people and I start asking
questions, like, `What can go wrong?' and then I make a decision,"
he said. "But you have to know that once you make a decision to
burn, it's difficult to stop."
Sometimes, there is no choice.
"This in here hasn't been burned for years. It's so thick and
so dense the fire would have ... basically just steamrolled all
these homes," said division supervisor Clinton Northway, pointing
to Apgar Village.
Park officials didn't want bulldozers damaging the land, and
terrain in some areas was too dangerous for hand crews to work.
Still, setting a backfire is a hard thing to explain to people.
Monday, crowds of people, some just evacuated, watched from a
highway as a column of smoke pointed directly at Apgar. In a matter
of 45 minutes, it started to billow straight into the air as Stam's
crew dropped fire to draw the main blaze away from Apgar and West
Glacier.
Stam said the maneuver helped protect the towns, but it also
bought the team some confidence from the community.
"I feel better now," said Kay Rosengren, who was evacuated on
Monday. "My comfort is knowing they're a good team. Maybe that's
because they're willing to level with us."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)