With the fire danger moving into the “very high” category, Missoula County commissioners on Thursday signed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency in an effort to prepare resources and authorities for the wildland fire season.
While the declaration does little to implement restrictions on campers and other outdoor activities, it sets the public on notice that the fire danger has reached critical levels.
“What this does is allows for the emergency operations plan to go into effect,” said Adriane Beck, director of the Office of Emergency Management in Missoula County. “If we needed to deny access or institute an evacuation, they would have that authority from you (commissioners) by virtue of the fact they’re under a state of emergency.”
As of Monday, the energy release component moved into the “high” category. The current burn index also has reached as high as 90 percent, Beck said.
“It’s getting a lot hotter out,” she added. “According to the National Weather Service, we’re going to be in a relatively hot period for the next three weeks, which is pretty typical this time of year. We’ve tipped the scales into very high fire danger.”
Over the past week, according to the Missoula County Fire Protection Association, multiple grass fires caused by human behavior and unattended campfires have escaped initial attack, with “some transitioning into the forest with rapid rates of spread.”
Several recent fires west of Missoula, including a five-acre grass fire near Frenchtown, were sparked by railroad grinding. While Montana Rail Link has added new precautions, county officials remain concerned over the potential spread caused by railroad maintenance and operations.
“On Tuesday evening, the grinding train coming down Evaro Hill started a five-acre fire and unfortunately got into a bunk of about 100 railroad ties,” Beck said. “That kept Frenchtown, the state and the Lolo (National Forest) fire crews pretty busy for a good 12 hours or so.”
“But MRL has been very cooperative working with local government and providing us with their schedule and letting us know what they’re doing,” she added.
Beck said the emergency declaration also is intended to raise public awareness over the rapidly changing fire conditions.
“This is the first step in going toward asking people to restrict their activities, but first you have to put them on notice,” she said. “We’re really trying to encourage people to be more careful instead of coming down with the heavy hand of restricting some of the behaviors, such as campfires and things like that.”