Montana Voices: Let’s change the conversation about wildfire

Nature is one of Montana’s greatest treasures, and wildfire occurs each summer only because we’re so fortunate to live amid millions of acres of unspoiled forests and prairies. Although wildfire plays a natural role in ecology, there’s no doubt it can also be devastating to our health, safety, property and livelihood. That’s why it’s 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 it’s safe to build a fire, we should do so responsibly. Sometimes wildfire can’t 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 Today’s Air 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 can’t 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 we’re talking about it.

During the peak months of fire season, nearly 6.5 million people from out-of-state visit Montana. That’s 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 — especially in the many communities serving as basecamps to the world-class outdoor recreation visitors come here to enjoy.

That’s 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. They’re getting their information from the news and word of mouth. During fire season, it isn’t uncommon to see headlines or social media posts generalizing or exaggerating wildfire. That’s where you come in.

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

To help, we’ve set up a website at here. 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, Director, Montana Department of Commerce; Tom Livers, Director, Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Sheila Hogan, Director, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.