After Smoky Summer, Local Officials Tell Residents to Prepare for Next Fire Season

Fire managers encourage residents to ready property for fire well before summer

By Justin Franz
Crews work to contain a fire near homes south of Kalispell. Beacon File Photo

WHITEFISH — On a chilly Thursday night, 20 or so people who live near Bootjack Lake west of Whitefish gathered at Ben Devall’s home to eat dinner, catch up and talk about the smoke-filled summer of 2017. Although the fires that filled the region with smoke for weeks on end never directly impacted the little wooded community, the residents were on edge. “Stressed” and “nervous” were the most popular words to describe their collective mood during the hottest, driest and windiest days.

Ali Ulwelling, head of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s wildfire prevention, education and information program, told them they were not alone. She recalled one particularly windy night a few months back when she got up and packed two bags: one with family photos and another with the essentials she would need in order to live if she had to evacuate. Even though there were no fires near her house, she knew she had to be ready.

“I realized that I had been telling people to be ready for the worst, but I wasn’t ready myself,” she said.

Being ready for worst was the message that Ulwelling and others brought to the residents off Bootjack Lake Road, who organized an informal get-together to discuss how they can prepare for future fire seasons. Ulwelling said so far this fall, she has attended a half-dozen community gatherings to speak with residents about the importance of clearing brush around homes and creating a defensible space. She notes that late fall and spring are ideal times to do work around homes in advance of the next fire season.

“There is certainly a lot more interest in having meetings like this after a bad fire season,” she said.

After discussing the 2017 season, Ulwelling and Flathead National Forest Assistant Fire Manager Mike West took the group outside to look at ways to “harden” a home and protect it from fire. Devall, who is the fire chief on Big Mountain, had already made a lot of progress in protecting his property by keeping certain trees back from the house, using lots of rock and not having a gutter. Ulwelling said the biggest threat to a home during a wildfire isn’t the fire moving in as one front, but rather spot fires spurred from embers. She also recommended keeping “ladder fuels” — limbs and shrubs on the bottom six to 10 feet of a tree — that can bring fires up into the branches and cause a crown fire.

Ulwelling said far too often homeowners only start to think about how to protect their home in the middle of fire season, when people like her are too busy to offer advice. She encouraged the residents to reach out to the Forest Service or DNRC about conducting individual home assessments and noted that they can be scheduled almost anytime.

For additional information about keeping your own home safe, contact Ali Ulwelling at (406) 751-2270.

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