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Wildland Firefighters Try To Combat Spread Of Invasive Species

Aug 23, 2017
Originally published on August 23, 2017 2:39 pm
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When fighting a wildfire, every minute matters. So it's striking that this summer, wildland firefighters in the West are using precious time cleaning their equipment. As Nicky Ouellet of Montana Public Radio reports, it's part of an attempt to avoid spreading invasive species that could cause billions of dollars in damage.

NICKY OUELLET, BYLINE: Just before sunset on a tarmac in northwest Montana, Wyatt Frampton ducks under the belly of a giant boat-shaped airplane to flick on a heated pressure washer.

WYATT FRAMPTON: I'll fire the pump up for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

OUELLET: Frampton is a state fire aviation manager.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPRAYING)

OUELLET: He'll spend the next hour decontaminating the water tanks of the firefighting airplane called a super scooper.

FRAMPTON: We take this issue very seriously. And that's - and we have accepted that this is a part of our operating environment.

OUELLET: Traces of two particularly aggressive pests - invasive mussels - were discovered in some eastern Montana waterways last summer. Now firefighters want to make sure they don't accidentally carry the mollusks across the continental divide into the headwaters of the Columbia River. That's the only major river system in the country that remains free of quagga and zebra mussels.

DAVID RAFF: In terms of invasive species, I would probably say that mussels, to my knowledge, is the biggest threat to hydropower facilities there in terms of what the cost would be.

OUELLET: David Raff is a science adviser for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates hydropower dams in the Columbia River basin. Those dams account for half of the country's hydropower production.

RAFF: To me, that would be a very high-ranking - on a scale of one to 10, it'd be a 10 in terms of economic impact.

OUELLET: Zebra and quagga mussels hitchhiked into the Great Lakes in the ballast water of shipping boats from the Caspian Sea in the 1980s and quickly colonized lakes and rivers in eastern America. In the 1990s, they cost Great Lake states more than $3 billion in damage to water filtration systems and power plants. Raff says the mussels get into the waterworks and clog the pipes.

RAFF: Also, just when they get into the pipes or into the turbines, their shells break apart and reduces the lifespan of the machinery.

OUELLET: If the mussels invade, they could cost hydroelectric facilities in the Columbia River basin $300 million annually to fight them. That would be partially passed on to consumers. What's more, Raff says, the mussels would wreak havoc on the entire ecosystem.

RAFF: There are threatened or endangered species or sportfishing that - all of these things would be impacted should the mussels infest the Columbia.

OUELLET: Once the mussels infest a waterway, they're there for good. There is no large-scale example of eradication, so prevention is the best option. The Bureau of Reclamation may get a bit of help funding that work. The Trump administration is asking Congress for additional money. But local agencies, like Montana's firefighters, are taking on some of the costs of prevention themselves now.

Back at the airport in Montana, Kevin Devine, another aerial firefighter, preps a helicopter bucket for decontamination.

KEVIN DEVINE: We are tasked with being stewards of the land in that it's not just timber. It's the waterways. And the waterways are the lifeblood of our state.

OUELLET: So far the decontaminations seem to be working. Montana recently resampled its suspect lakes and didn't find any adult mussels. For NPR News, I'm Nicky Ouellet in Kalispell, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASH BLACK BUFFLO'S "BUHO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.