Missoula County details urban edge fire emergency response; mitigation grants available

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

The drainages around the Missoula Valley can be an idyllic place to live, but the threat of wildfire is always present, representing the greatest risk facing landowners in the area.

On Tuesday, Missoula County Disaster and Emergency Services spoke to a small group of Grant Creek residents to detail the county’s exposure to certain hazards, from floods to fires, and how an emergency response would would take place if necessary.

Although no one has a crystal ball, emergency officials said a fire season is inevitable and resources — including federal grants — are available to help homeowners prepare.

“We may or may not have a flood season, but we will have a fire season,” said DES official Adriane Beck. “It’s just a question of when it’s going to start and how bad it’s going to be.”

Beck said the county is working with the U.S. Forest Service and its fire forecasters to predict the season ahead as best science can. Recent rain and snow at high altitudes have helped dispel drought concerns, at least for now.

But July is fast approaching and its hot, dry weather is not far away.

“Drought was a huge concern in early spring before we had all this moisture. We were seeing it crawling west,” Beck said. “That picture has changed a lot over the past month with the amount of precipitation we’ve seen and the snowpack still holding up in the mountains.”

With all the rain, the hills of western Montana are spring green, as indicated by the tall, verdant grass. It is only a matter of time before the grass dries up and the fire has a basis for growth.

“At some point in late June or mid-July the switch will flip,” Beck said. “It’s a bad situation for these flashy fuels. They look green right now and they are growing gangbusters, but they lose their moisture very quickly. Unfortunately, these are the scary types of fuels that ignite quite quickly.

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

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

“There are two components to this grant. One is to create a defensible space in this home ignition zone,” Beck said. “The other element is a bit more complex and requires further review by FEMA to complete the removal of hazardous vegetation on private property.”

This last grant can be applied for fuel reduction within two miles of a home, but must take place on private property. Using federal funding, the county can cover approximately 75% of the cost while the owner must match 25%.

Beck said it’s possible other federal funds may be available for other fire mitigation work.

“If you tracked some of the federal funding that comes from the infrastructure bill, there will be a lot of money allocated to the USDA and the Department of the Interior to deal with some of these fire hazards. forest for communities,” said Beck. . “We don’t know what that looks like yet, but we’re in conversation to make sure we have a place at the table to help direct and focus some of this funding into some of these drains that we’ve identified as being high risk. .”

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

With all Missoula Valley watersheds facing unique wildfire threats—and Seeley Lake having been evacuated due to fire twice in recent years—Grant Creek has become the epicenter of the debate on living and building in the urban interface.

The Missoula City Council is expected to vote this week on a development at the base of Grant Creek, a project 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 decided that if I don’t get out right now, I’m going to stay put,” said one resident. “It’s going to be an s-show leaving Grant Creek and people are going to be freaked out. If I don’t get out real quick, I’ll just stay put.

Beck said the county is working to prepare for all fires, not just Grant Creek, and has detailed response plans and agency partnerships.

“The purpose and intent of an emergency operations plan is that it covers all risks, is scalable and flexible for what we are facing right now,” Beck said. “It’s the guide to how everyone plays together, understanding everyone’s role and how we form that incident command structure.”

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