Staying Safe and Sound on Independence Day

Cool weather has held back the usual tide of emergency calls so far, but authorities will be vigilant over the holiday

By Tristan Scott
Fourth of July fireworks. Beacon File Photo

During the frenetic summer months in the Flathead Valley, emergency calls often rise to a fever pitch as numerous incidents unfold in rapid succession and first responders from multiple agencies spring into action en masse.

Law enforcement and emergency medical services have contingency plans for parsing out their resources, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a tipping point.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said so far this year, Flathead County has received more emergency calls for service than last year — a trend that is likely to continue as the valley grows — but this summer’s pattern of cool, overcast weather and sporadic rain has helped steady the usual influx of emergency calls that spikes when the weather warms, sending residents to the lakes and rivers.

“The weather hasn’t really been conducive to boating and floating, but if we get a stretch of hot or warm weather and people are out recreating on the lake, we are going to get busy in a hurry,” Curry said.

In addition to motor vehicle accidents, boating and rafting accidents can tap local emergency-response resources in a hurry, particularly as rivers, lakes and access points become increasingly congested.

Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard recorded 4,291 accidents involving 658 deaths, 2,629 injuries and approximately $46 million of damage to property as the result of recreational boating accidents.

Alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, according to the Coast Guard’s 2017 report.

There were 172 accidents in which at least one person was struck by a propeller, resulting in 31 deaths and 162 injuries.

A year ago, a 34-year-old Canadian man lost his foot in an accident involving a boat propeller on Whitefish Lake, a reminder, according to Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial, that boater safety and caution is paramount.

In Whitefish, law enforcement officers typically have their hands full patrolling a crowded resort town whose summer months see an influx of boat-towing visitors, and emergency responders with the Whitefish Fire Department are dispatched throughout the community.

Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page said it’s been relatively quiet so far, but echoes Curry that a spate of warm temperatures could spell trouble.

In the week leading up to the Fourth of July holiday, law enforcement and emergency-response agencies prepared by reminding residents about rules governing the use of fireworks, and discouraging the combination of alcohol with driving, boating, floating, and setting off fireworks.

“Alcohol and fireworks don’t mix,” Page said. “We’ve had enough wind to knock down branches and fill gutters, and even though the fire danger isn’t extreme it’s still a hazard.”

Local law enforcement will be ramping up its presence as an added safety precaution, Curry said, including extra staffing and patrols beginning June 30.

The regulations regarding fireworks vary across the Flathead Valley with each city setting its own rules.

The sale and use of fireworks is banned completely within Kalispell city limits. Meanwhile, fireworks may only be set off within Whitefish city limits on July 3 and 4 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fireworks can only be sold between noon and 8 p.m. between July 2 and 4.

State parks, fishing accesses and wildlife areas are off limits to fireworks year-round, while Flathead County parks also ban fireworks.

“We are fortunate that we have had enough sporadic rain that the woods and grass isn’t tinder dry right now, but certainly people can still start fires,” Curry said. “It’s a concern every year, but this year hopefully we are going to get through it safely. But we’re ready for anything.”

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