Officials say time is now to prepare for fire season

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It’s already time to start thinking about preparing for next year’s fire season, local fire experts told community members last week during a forum at City Hall.

“You know we’re going to have a fire season in Western Montana. It may last a week, but then we have fire seasons like this where we have Stage 2 restrictions and extreme fire danger and every day there is the potential for large fire,” Ali Ulwelling, DNRC Wildfire Prevention, Education and Information Coordinator for FireSafe Flathead said during the city’s “Preparing for the Fire Next Time” forum Oct. 18.

“We have a responsibility for taking action around our home and property to prepare for what is inevitable at some point.”

Karin Hilding, Senior Project Engineer for the city, said the event came together after citizens requested such a forum to ask questions about fire prevention and evacuation procedures. Hilding said the event was recorded and a video with all the information will be released so those who couldn’t attend the event.

Four panelists spoke during the forum to an audience of about two dozen people.

Ulwelling discussed preparation steps inside and around the home to help get ready in case of a fire evacuation, while Fire Marshall Travis Tveidt answered questions about the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code. Flathead County Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson spoke on health issues related to smoke, and Amy Cilimburg of Climate Smart Missoula touched on air filtration and some of the work that’s been done in Missoula to combat a smoky fire season.

Ulwelling flipped through various slides of different stages of fire season, showing images of plumes of smoke, 20-foot-high tongues of flame and ash and embers floating down the street. Then she showed a scenic photo of a spring landscape, with snowy mountains in the background and fresh, green grass in the foreground.

This, she said, is the time to prepare — either in the spring or fall, when the fire risk is gone.

“At this point, when the adrenaline is low, when you have time to prepare and do the work around your home and property, pull your papers together, make copies of important documents this is a really good time to prepare for fire season,” she said.

Ulwelling pointed to the FireSafe Flathead’s “Ready, Set, Go” procedures for creating an effective evacuation plan, along with several quick fixes around the home and yard that can make a property less susceptible to fire damage.

These include pruning branches and cutting down regeneration growth, cleaning gutters and eaves, avoiding stacking fuels against buildings and spacing out trees and other combustibles in the yard to create a larger space for firefighters to work if a wildfire does reach the area.

The best thing someone can do, she said, is have an evacuation plan locked down.

“If you have a fire start in your area and it’s time to evacuate, do you have a plan in place? Have you mentally thought through and prepared yourself the eventuality of an evacuation? So when you go to put the keys in the ignition, maybe your heart isn’t pounding quite so fast,” Ulwelling said.

Speaking from the audience, Umar Bell pointed to another facet of evacuation planning — helping the elderly and less mobile. Bell cited an Oct. 19 National Public Radio story that said of the 40 people dead and 50 missing in the wildfires currently blazing in northern California, the vast majority are elderly.

“Almost all of the people who perished in the fires out in California were over 60 years old. As you well know, we have quite a large community of elderly here in Whitefish and Flathead County,” Bell said.

Tveidt suggested more involved evacuation and fire drills at elderly facilities as a way to get ahead of the problem.

“We teach fire drills in the schools for a reason, and maybe this is something that should be taught in the elderly communities, where there’s nursing homes or assisted living,” Tveidt said. “They do fire drills, but they don’t do a complete evacuation drill.”

Tveidt said as a neighbor to an assisted living facility or elderly citizens, community members should keep this in mind and find ways to help those around them too.

Tveidt also shared some information about the Wildland-Urban Interface Code, a framework for building better fire-safe buildings and communities.

Whitefish is an early adopter of the code, and Tveidt acknowledged a tough but necessary battle in enforcing the code to ensure buildings are less prone to fire damage.

“It’s a tough battle telling somebody they’re going to start building with noncombustible constructive materials. When it raises the cost of construction they’re going to not go for it. So we’re trying to figure out how we can convince people that it’s important.”

Robert Harris asked Tveidt what to do about those homeowners who don’t actually live in Whitefish and may not have updated their home’s fire safety in years.

“I’ve always assumed that if my house and property was more defensible, my neighbors’ is more defensible as well,” Harris said. “We have a situation where many of these properties and vacant lots are owned by people out of state who probably haven’t seen them for years, and they’re loaded with fuels, and yet you can’t access without trespassing or theft. Is there anything that can be done on a neighborhood project to address these issues?”

“Well if we start enforcing this urban interface code, there is.,” Tveidt said. “We can get a hold of these people and get in touch with the owners and the city can require them to do it in the city limits.”

Amy Cilimburg from Climate Smart Missoula also shared some insight on how smoke and air quality concerns have been addressed in Missoula County.

Both Missoula and Seeley Lake faced hazardous smoke conditions over the summer, with the Rice Ridge Fire filling Seeley Lake with thick smoke while the Lolo Peak Fire affected Missoula.

Climate Smart Missoula has been working on acquiring and distributing High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance (HEPA) air filtration systems to those most impacted by wildfire smoke in hazardous areas.

Especially for elderly populations, protecting oneself from the dangers of wildfire smoke is critical, Cilimburg said.

“It’s just harder for your body as you get older to process wildfire smoke. It’s not just your lungs, it’s also your whole cardiovascular system — heart attacks, strokes and those things can be affected by smoke,” she said.

For more information on preparing a home or property for fire season, visit firesafemt.org.

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