As homes and communities in California continue to burn in wildfires, local fire experts last week held a forum to discuss methods residents can take to keep disaster out of Whitefish.
The Wildfire in the Community forum featured several panelists discussing how to protect homes and businesses out of the trend of brutal fire seasons to nearly full City Council Chambers at City Hall. The event was hosted by Climate Smart Glacier Country.
Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page stressed the importance of action at the individual level.
“As a homeowner, you have work to do every year, every season. I want everybody to look at becoming part of the fire wise community. There’s a lot of responsibility on homeowners to take care of your home, and your neighbors,” he said. “My staff has four firefighters [per shift.] I don’t think we’re going to go out and be able to put out a bunch of houses. We just don’t have the staffing to protect everything. You need to do this yourself.”
Page and others repeatedly turned back to current wildfires in California as a worst-case scenario.
The Camp Fire in northern California has killed at least 79 people while burning 151,272 acres, and an urban fire further south in the state has burned 96,949 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 buildings in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.
An emotional Page stressed the need to work together to avoid such disasters at home.
“I’m a little upset watching how many people are dying out there when we know how to prevent these things,” he said.
City Councilor Richard Hildner noted how even as the Flathead Valley gets colder heading into winter, fire season is always looming in the distance.
“Even though we’re seeing the snow showing up at the top of the mountain and we’re thinking skiing season is just around the corner, but that also means that fire season really isn’t that far behind. So I think it’s important that we start thinking about fire season now and the impacts they may have on us,” he said.
Hildner took the audience through a tour of “what ifs” and ideas he has for making Whitefish more resistant to wildfire damage.
Evacuation plans, building regulations and yard maintenance rules were some of his suggestions, noting how in a case like what might seem like “government overreach” is likely in the public’s best interest.
Hildner also wondered aloud whether school sports should consider the fire season when making their schedule, and what the ramifications of a fire on Big Mountain would look like.
“Are we prepared for the moment when the Big Mountain burns again? It was probably in 1919, 1920 the last time that face burned off, so if the fire rotation is about 120 years in the lodgepole pine, we’re getting to that point again where we can expect fire to again sweep across the face of Big Mountain,” he said. “What do we do economically when that happens?”
Hildner ended his time with a slideshow of various houses in his own neighborhood, pointing out seemingly-harmless leaves and pine needles on roofs and in gutters that could potentially be catastrophic if given the chance to burn. Stressing that he was not trying to shame anyone or point fingers, Hildner said he just wants to see the community become safer.
“If we don’t help each other, we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” he said.
Jeff Mow, Glacier National Park Superintendent, Rick Trembath, former Bigfork Fire Chief, Ed Lieser, a fire behavior specialist, and Bambi Goodman, part of the Whitefish Area Fire Safe Council, also spoke at the forum. Mow outlined the history of wildfire in the Park and the ways Glacier is becoming more fire adaptive.
During the summer the park’s largest fire was the Howe Ridge fire, which consumed 14,500 acres. The previous summer saw the Sprague fire, which blazed through nearly 17,000 acres and burned down the Sperry Chalet.
“There is a long history of fire in Glacier. When we look at our records, it’s about 1,500 fire starts since the Park was established. We average about 14 lightning started fires each year. Seventy-one percent of the park has burned at least once since it was established,” Mow told the audience.
Due to a few key factors, Glacier is in a hotspot for wildfire potential, he said.
“When you look at elevations in the Rocky Mountains, we are very low relative to the rest of the Rockies. We have these high fuel loads. With these longer, warmer summers, we’re actually producing more biomass each year than probably historically what we’ve done. And again, our elevations, where we sit, we have a very high probability for ignitions, we are subject to lighting, we know that,” he said. “A lot of that adds up to put us in that sweet spot of vulnerability.”
Glacier is always working to be more prepared for fire emergencies, he noted.
When discussing ingress and egress issues that may arise during emergency evacuations, Mow pointed to Going-to-the-Sun Road for having these issues on a normal day.
The park is aware of the challenges it faces and will continue to face, but Mow said being adaptive is the key.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Are we just seeing a bad state of fires at Glacier or is this the new norm?’ It’s too early to tell, but what I think about sort of as a Park, a community in a very large sense, I think we have to think about our resilience to the conditions we have. When I say resilience I’m referring to what I’ve seen my staff do — they’re very good now at pivoting from a million visitors one month to fires the next month. I’ve seen some of the businesses that have gotten very good at pivoting, and I’ve even heard some local people say, ‘Maybe next August we’re not going to stick around’ just because they know it’s going to be smoky.”
“I think fires in the west are going to continue to be an issue for all of us.”