Flathead County Stays at Stage 2 Fire Restrictions for Long Weekend

Disagreement on commission eliminated possibility of scaling back to Stage 1 or removing all restrictions

By Molly Priddy

While federal and state lands are likely scaling back from Stage 2 fire restrictions to Stage 1 in the wake of cool, rainy weather, the Flathead County Commission could not come to agreement on such action during a Sept. 4 hearing, leaving county lands in Stage 2.

A disagreement between Commissioners Gary Krueger and Pam Holmquist left the commission in a stalemate on rescinding the fire restrictions put in place in the heart of the heavy wildfire season this summer.

Commission Phil Mitchell was absent from the hearing.

Krueger, a farmer, argued that from his perspective, the change in the weather has eliminated immediate fire dangers, and Flathead County no longer qualifies as a high fire hazard area, making the commission’s imposition of Stage 1 and 2 restrictions no longer legal.

“When we’re given the authority as a county government to impose restrictions on the public, normally we have to have the due process of the law,” Krueger said. “We’ve done these restrictions under the emergency portion of our state code and those restrictions are in high hazard areas.”

Since Krueger no longer believes county land, which he defined as that between Highway 206 and Farm to Market Road and North of Flathead Lake to Highway 40, is a high fire hazard, such restrictions could impose on personal property rights, such as having a campfire on private land.

“I don’t believe that there’s any more fire danger today than there is in a normal fire year as far as in the agricultural area, and in the area that most of the county’s property that we are imposing restrictions on,” Krueger said.

Krueger also said firefighting resources are becoming available as they are demobilized from the area’s major fires.

Holmquist, however, said she did not believe the immediate fire danger had passed, noting that Stage 1 restrictions allow campfires in developed rings, but restricts other activity, such as fireworks.

“My concern with that when you’re talking a campfire, it’s usually within a ring in a confined area,” Holmquist said. “(Campfires are not as) mobile as fireworks, where you can be throwing them out wherever, or, in turn, smoking, where you can throw a cigarette out your window and not worry about it because you’re not confined by Stage 1.”

Lincoln Chute, the Flathead County’s fire warden and fire service area manager, said the energy-release component of the fuels is still the same as it was the day a cigarette caused a fire in Evergreen that burned down houses, and most fuels have totally cured in the summer heat. Grasses along the highways and in fields that aren’t watered and mowed could still dry out in just an hour in the sun.

Chute said the possibility of a firework or errant cigarette tossed into the grass starting a fire is still “substantial.”

Krueger made a motion to rescind both Stage 1 and 2 restrictions, but the motion died without a second. Holmquist made a motion to rescind just Stage 2 and remain at Stage 1, which Krueger seconded so he could continue to discuss his opinion on the matter, but then voted against Holmquist’s measure.

“Looks like we stay with Stage 1 and 2,” Holmquist said.

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