Flathead County Enacts Heightened Fire Restrictions

Tailored rules allow for farming, combustion engines in effort to support businesses

By Molly Priddy
Firefighters respond to a fire in Evergreen on Aug. 5, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

With local and state fire resources already stretched thin, the Flathead County Commission enacted heightened fire restrictions on Aug. 20 in an effort to prevent more blazes from sparking on the valley floor.

On Tuesday, the Northern Rockies Coordination Group announced that Stage II fire restrictions would go into place in Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, and Sanders counties on state, federal, and some county land. Those restrictions went into place at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20.

The Aug. 20 restrictions passed unanimously by the commission were deemed a better fit for Flathead County’s valley floor than the one-size-fits-all approach from the NRCG, with certain activities exempted, such as anything farming related and removing any general restrictions on combustion engines.

“We’re not trying to hurt any industry,” Commissioner Pam Holmquist said. “We’re trying to protect the citizenry – that’s our job.”

The Stage II restrictions for Flathead County prohibit:

•  All campfires

•  Smoking, except when in an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site, or while stopped in at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials

•  Operating motor vehicles off designated roads or trails

The commission also restricted the following activities from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.:

•  Logging operations

•  Outdoor welding, operating an acetylene torch or other torch with open flame, or any activity creating a fire hazard unless in an area at least 10 feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials or has a method of fire suppression on sit

•  Using an explosive

•  A one-hour patrol in the work area is required once all previously identified activities are finished.

Exemptions to the Stage II restrictions include:

•  Persons using a device fueled solely by liquid petroleum or LPG fuels that can be turned on and off; and barbecues and wood pellet grills. If used, these devices must be in a barren area or cleared of all overhead or surrounding flammable materials within 3 feet

•  Operating generators with an approved spark-arresting device in a barren area or cleared of all overhead or surrounding flammable materials within 3 feet.

•  Operating motorized vehicles on designated roads and trails

•  Emergency repair of public utilities and railroads

•  Any federal, state, or local office or member of an organized rescue or firefighting force in the performance of an official duty

•  All land within a city boundary is exempted

•  Other exemptions unique to each agency and tribe

•  Any farming-related activities

Stage I fire restrictions, which went into place on July 2, already prohibit fireworks.

The commission heard from farmers and other businesses in the valley that may be affected by such restrictions, such as professional lawn maintenance companies, and said it tried to address many of the concerns with the tailored Stage II restrictions.

Sheriff Chuck Curry said this is the worst season for fire potential he’s seen in his career in the Flathead, and that anything the commission could do to help alleviate the pressure on his resources would help.

Already, fire crews are pulled so thin that of the 110 active fires burning in Northwest Montana, perhaps 50 or 60 are burning unattended because there aren’t enough firefighters.

“We don’t want to impact people’s livelihoods,” Curry said. “But should something happen on the valley floor, I don’t think we could effectively muster the response (in the time we normally could).”

Curry also said Essex is likely facing evacuation as fires creep over the ridge tops, and that if the forecasted winds come true, U.S. Highway 2 could also face closure if the flames reach the road.

The commission tried to address the concern of dual jurisdiction, in which the county shares jurisdiction over some of the farmland located within its borders with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Farms under dual jurisdiction could face hefty fines in the thousands of dollars if they operate equipment, because they are under the more stringent Stage II restrictions put in place on state and federal lands.

Commissioner Gary Krueger said the issue “disturbed” him, and that it is an issue the state Legislature will have to fix. Commissioner Phil Mitchell said that any farmer concerned about dual jurisdiction could take the commission’s Aug. 20 resolution to DNRC and try to work on a solution.

Mitchell was more vehement in his support of the Stage II restrictions, saying that the Flathead Valley is too far behind the curve on getting restrictions passed. Holmquist, in an interview after the meeting, noted that many of the counties in Northwest Montana were still drafting their restrictions when Flathead County passed this resolution.

“We’re not behind in getting these restrictions in place,” she said.

UPDATE: This story has been edited to include new details and clarifying information.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.