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Missoula County details emergency response to fire on urban fringe

A helicopter from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation conducts bucket drops on a fire that burned on Mount Sentinel in 2020. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

The drainages around the Missoula Valley may be an idyllic place to live, but the threat of wildfire is ever present, representing the greatest risk faced by property owners across the region.

Missoula County Disaster and Emergency Services on Tuesday addressed a small group of Grant Creek residents to detail the county’s exposure to certain hazards, from floods to fire, and how an emergency response would play out if necessary.

While no one has a crystal ball, emergency officials said a fire season is inevitable and resources – including federal grants – are available to help property owners prepare.

“We may or may not have a flood season, but we will have a fire season,” said DES manager Adriane Beck. “It’s just a matter of when it will kick off and how severe it will be.”

Beck said the county works with the U.S. Forest Service and its fire forecasters to predict as well as science can the season that lies ahead. The recent rain and high-elevation snow has helped stave off concerns over drought, at least for now.

But July is rapidly approaching and its warm, dry weather isn’t far away.

“Drought was a huge concern in early spring before we got all this moisture. We were seeing it creep its way to the west,” Beck said. “That picture has changed quite a bit in the last month with the amount of precipitation we’ve seen, and the snowpack that’s still holding up in the mountains.”

With all the rain, the hills across western Montana are spring green, as indicated by the tall and verdant grass. It’s just a matter of time before that grass cures and fire has a foundation for growth.

“At some point in late June or mid July, the switch will flip,” Beck said. “It’s a bad situation for those flashy fuels. They look green right now and they’re growing gangbusters, but they loose their moisture really quickly. Unfortunately, those are the scary types of fuels that carry fire pretty quickly.”

While the fire season may be delayed for two or three weeks, Beck said the Missoula County Fire Protection Association will begin its weekly meetings this week and will continue to meet for as long as necessary.

The county is looking to acquire emergency road signs this spring and it now uses a modern emergency notification system capable of reaching cell phones. It also plans to pursue a number of federal grants aimed at fuel reduction, including defensible spaces around fire-prone neighborhoods.

“There’s two components of that grant. One is to create defensible space within that home ignition zone,” Beck said. “The other component is a little more complex and requires more review from FEMA to complete hazardous vegetation removal on private property.”

The latter grant can be applied for fuel reduction within two miles of a house, but it must take place on private property. Using federal funding, the county can cover roughly 75% of the cost while the homeowner must present a match of 25%.

Beck said it’s possible that other federal funding could become available for other fire mitigation work.

“If you’ve been tracking some of the federal funding that’s coming down through the infrastructure bill, there’s going to be a lot of money allocated to the USDA and the Department of Interior to address some of this wildfire hazard to communities,” Beck said. “We don’t know what that looks like yet, but we’re in conversations to make sure we have a seat at the table to help direct and focus some of that funding within some of these drainages we’ve identified as being high hazard.”

Pilot Todd Donahue of Homestead Helicopters in Missoula posted this photo as the Lolo Peak fire made a run toward homes in 2017. (Todd Donahue via Facebook)

While all drainages across the Missoula Valley face unique wildfire threats – and while Seeley Lake has been evacuated twice due to fire in recent years – Grant Creek has become the epicenter of debate over living and building in the urban interface.

The Missoula City Council this week is expected to vote on a proposed development at the base of Grant Creek, a project that’s opposed by most residents in that area. While Beck said the county has an evacuation plan, some Grant Creek residents remain unmoved.

“I live in upper Grant Creek and I’ve kind of made up my mind that if I don’t get out right away, to just stay in place,” said one resident. “It’s going to be a s- show leaving Grant Creek and people are going to be panicked. If I don’t get out really quick, I’m just going to stay put.”

Beck said the county works to prepare for all fire events, not just in Grant Creek, and it has detailed response plans and agency partnerships.

“The purpose and intent of an emergency operations plan is that it’s all-hazard, and it’s scale-able and flexible for what we’re facing in the moment,” Beck said. “It’s the guide book on how everyone plays together, understanding everyone’s role, and how we form that incident command structure.”