Local Firefighters React to Deadly California Blazes: ‘It Can Happen Here’

Whitefish holds community meeting about preparing for wildfire following back-to-back summers plagued with flames and smoke

By Justin Franz

Last week, Evergreen Fire Chief Craig Williams stood in a neighborhood near Malibu, California and took in a blackened, devastated landscape.

“There is a lot of destruction,” he said by phone on Nov. 14 as he and his team of firefighters from Northwest Montana endured a 24-hour-long shift battling the Woolsey Fire, one of nearly a dozen blazes currently burning in California.

Firefighters from across the West have descended on California as it suffers through the most destructive, and deadly, fire season in the state’s history. In Los Angeles County, the Woolsey Fire had burned more than 98,000 acres as of Nov. 15 and destroyed an estimated 500 buildings. In Northern California, the Camp Fire literally wiped the town of Paradise off the map, destroying more than 10,000 structures, including at least 8,700 homes.

As of Nov. 15, at least 56 people were dead and dozens more were still missing, making the Camp Fire the deadliest fire in California since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire that killed 29 people near Los Angeles.

Williams has been a firefighter for 20 years and said he has never seen anything as destructive as what’s happened in California. Under Williams are 18 firefighters and five engines from Evergreen, Marion, Bigfork, Bull Lake (south of Troy) and Corvallis. Williams said his team is focusing on protecting homes and letting the local firefighters have a break after a strenuous week on the fire line.

“This is unfortunately the new normal,” he said. “Our fire seasons are just getting longer and longer. Never did I think we would be fighting wildfires in November and December, but we’ve gone to California two years in a row to do it.”

Flathead County Fire Service Area Manager Lincoln Chute said the terrifying images out of California are a reminder that people need to be vigilant in protecting their property and homes. Chute recommends taking time before winter sets in to cut brush around homes to create a defensible space and clear gutters of leaves and debris. Embers can easily get into a gutter and quickly engulf an entire home in flames.

“To think that what is happening in California can’t happen here is crazy,” Chute said. “People need to be aware that it can happen here.”

Chute’s warning comes after back-to-back summers that saw thick smoke and flames across Northwest Montana, including in Glacier National Park. Although homes were lost in Glacier Park this summer, most of the fires in Northwest Montana have been outside of town. But officials fear the day when a fire rolls into a more populated community, much like it did in Paradise, California.

Fire in urban areas was the topic of a community forum at Whitefish City Hall on Nov. 14. Speakers included Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page, Whitefish Area Fire Safe Council member Bambi Goodman, Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow, retired fire chief and historian Rick Trembath, fire behavior specialist Ed Lieser and Whitefish deputy mayor and fire behavior analyst Richard Hildner. The City of Whitefish, Climate Smart Glacier Country and Firesafe Flathead sponsored the forum.

Trembath said that prior to the 1900s, low-intensity fires were frequent in the Flathead Valley and would thin out underbrush. However, as the valley’s population grew, more fires were put out and not allowed to play a natural role on the landscape. Trembath said there is a century’s worth of undergrowth waiting to burn in the valley.

Page, Whitefish’s fire chief, said the images from California of frantic evacuations and torched neighborhoods worry and frustrate him because he knows he does not have enough firefighters to protect every home in Whitefish. He said the fires in California didn’t travel from tree to tree like a traditional wildfire but rather home to home.

“Your home is fuel,” he said. “As a homeowner you have work to do every year and every season.”

Hildner shared a slideshow of photos he took around his neighborhood in Whitefish, including gutters overflowing with debris and dry woodpiles right next to homes. He said Whitefish should try to learn from what happened in Paradise and review its own city ordinances to see if there are any regulations that could be improved or implemented to help the community better prepare for fire. Among the ideas shared were requiring more fire-resistant material be used on new buildings or requiring people to clean out their gutters.

“We have to have these discussions,” he said. “It’s going to take a community-wide effort to be ready for when fires comes (and) if we don’t help each other we are going to be in a world of hurt.”

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