Reporter's Notebook

Avoiding Wildfires

With so many conditions stacked against us that are out of our control, let’s focus on what we can control

By Myers Reece

I try to be an optimist, almost reflexively, but it’s hard to escape this conclusion: the local wildfire outlook is edging rapidly toward bleak.

But the stubborn optimist in me doesn’t give up easily. Even as smoke moves into the valley and fires erupt in neighboring areas, I seek solace, however fleeting, in a U.S. Drought Monitor map showing our region to be a relative island oasis. It’s a major reason why Flathead County has only one incident on the state’s interactive fire map.

Still, I understand the walls are closing in fast. Crews are battling blazes in nearby Lincoln and Sanders counties, and a prolonged stretch of hot and dry weather doesn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon. The colors of the drought map, while better than surrounding areas, are changing quickly, and our valley’s initially favorable conditions are now being rendered as “extreme fire danger” warnings throughout the region. 

Given those harsh realities, interagency fire managers recently implemented stringent fire restrictions, including both Stage I and Stage II, throughout Northwest Montana beginning last weekend. Depending on a specific area’s stage, the restrictions govern everything from campfires and smoking to operating motorized vehicles off designated roads and welding. 

Those restrictions are reminders that three-quarters of wildfires are human caused, a statistical reality that can be construed both pessimistically and hopefully. On one hand, it means we have a degree of control over our fire destiny. On the other hand, it means that we’re relying on a species — humans — that is far from infallible.

Not to mention, as evidenced by the massive crowds descending on our roads, trails and waters, there are thousands more people in the valley increasing the chances of human-caused fires.

So, here’s where I make a plea that is echoed ad nauseam this time of year yet is always relevant and even more urgent this summer: Please be safe and smart. Seriously. The restrictions aren’t suggestions. They’re hard-and-fast rules critical to the trajectory of our fire season, which is to say our health, our economy and our environment.

There are also seemingly innocuous behaviors and acts that assume much grimmer potential in these conditions. Gov. Greg Gianforte, who declared a statewide fire emergency last week, reminded residents and visitors alike to secure trailer chains, regularly maintain equipment and avoid parking on tall, dry grass.

Gianforte’s office said there were 14 large fire incidents in Montana as of July 16, far too early by normal wildfire season standards. Since Jan. 1, there have been over 1,400 fire starts in the state burning over 150,000 acres, with over 500 starts this month. Of the starts in the last month, the governor said, over 75% were human caused. 

Flathead County will have wildfires this year, of course. But the state is already grappling with a shortage in firefighting resources, which means keeping fires fewer and smaller can have ripple-effect repercussions. Each start carries the potential for erupting into the big one, and each start we avoid is critical.

It’s true that Montana is first in line for access to national resources due to being at the highest level of firefighting preparedness, but it’s competing with other Western states that are enduring historic droughts and their own forbidding wildfire outlooks.

With so many conditions stacked against us that are out of our control, let’s focus on what we can control. We must be hyper cautious, bordering on paranoid. And if you have a rain dance, start doing it now.

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