Prevention key to minimizing impacts of wildfire

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Nature is one of Montanaís greatest treasures, and wildfire occurs each summer only because weíre so fortunate to live amid millions of acres of unspoiled forests and prairies. Although wildfire plays a natural role in ecology, thereís no doubt it can also be devastating to our health, safety, property and livelihood. Thatís why itís so important to do everything possible to minimize its impacts.

It starts with prevention. We should be aware of fire restrictions before we go camping, and if itís safe to build a fire, we should do so responsibly. Sometimes wildfire canít be prevented, in which case air quality may be a concern. Fortunately the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Public Health and Human Services have prepared resources to help the public make informed decisions to protect their health during poor air quality events. These agencies provide resources like Todayís Air at http://svc.mt.gov/deq/todaysair/ that let visitors know where the air is clear and where precautions should be taken for outdoor recreation.

Montana is a state of more than 93 million acres, 55 state parks and two national parks, which create countless opportunities for adventure. Even if you canít find a spot nearby where the land and air are safe enough for outdoor recreation, some of the most enriching experiences can be found indoors. Montana has a wealth of great museums, arts and entertainment, and other experiences inside.

Another way to help minimize the economic impacts of wildfire is to be aware of how weíre talking about it.

During the peak months of fire season, nearly 6.5 million people from out of state visit Montana. Thatís another six potential customers per Montana resident for the Main Street businesses owned by and employing our friends and neighbors. And without them, many of our small businesses would be hurting ó especially in the many communities serving as basecamps to the world-class outdoor recreation visitors come here to enjoy.

Thatís a difficult situation some communities faced last summer, as wildfire closed popular recreation sites and created conditions unsafe for being outdoors. Some visitors cut their vacations short or even canceled them, which stops new money from ever reaching our economy.

With information resources to make educated decisions about your health, and world-class recreation opportunities all across Montana, anyone would be hard-pressed to run out of options. Montanans know this, but our visitors might not. Theyíre getting their information from the news and word of mouth. During fire season, it isnít uncommon to see headlines or social media posts generalizing or exaggerating wildfire. Thatís where you come in.

Letís change the conversation. Letís be honest about the risks, but letís also keep things in perspective and show some Montana hospitality to help our guests find the next best thing.

To help, weíve set up a website at travelaware.mt.gov. It features all the information residents and travelers alike should know to be healthy and safe while still having a great time and supporting our Main Street businesses.

Pam Haxby-Cote is the Director of the Montana Department of Commerce, Tom Livers is the director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Sheila Hogan is the director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

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