By Chief William Farhat
Big Sky Fire Department
While the recent changes in our weather pattern may seem to indicate that Fall is on the way, wildland fires are always a serious concern in the Big Sky area. There is much that we can do to minimize their threat in our community and together we can reduce the inherent risks.
Enjoying the beauty of our mountains and the activities they offer is what brought most of us here, but that also puts us in in very close proximity to the national forests that surround us, in the zone known as the Wildland-Urban Interface. Fires are also a natural and necessary part of the forest’s ecology, so it’s not a matter of if a wildland fire will occur, but more a question of when.
Fires in the WUI are always a challenge for fire departments as they can become large events quickly, and easily overwhelm local resources. For this reason, the preparations that citizens take before a fire are the best way to protect themselves and their property.
Stay informed. The best way to get official information on community-wide emergencies is registering your cell phone with Gallatin County’s Community Notification System. All Big Sky residents, no matter which county you live in, can do so at readygallatin.com. If a fire is near, warnings will be sent to all landlines automatically and registered cell phones, giving you time to prepare. If an evacuation notice is given, you will receive specific information regarding the threat and the best evacuation routes.
Understand how a wildland fire can affect your home and neighborhood. This is key to keeping both safe in case you’ve had to leave the area. The California firestorm videos on the news during the past few years give one the impression that nothing can be done to stop the spread of a fire, but this is not the case. The trees, grasses and plants in Big Sky can certainly burn during our hot, dry summers, and during the years with extremely hot and dry conditions, local fires have become explosive in nature, but they are more the exception than the rule.
Wildland fires aren’t a wall of flames that obliterate everything in their path. In fact, fire-behavior studies have shown that how we prepare our properties dictates the severity of the impact. Wildland fires normally advance with hot embers being blown ahead of the main part of the fire, starting their own fires. If a home has not been prepared properly, it can start to burn, intensifying a fire in a neighborhood and the resulting destruction. If a home has been prepared well, the chances of it withstanding a fire passing through the area improve greatly.
Simple steps you can take. Actions such as cleaning your gutters, removing dead vegetation and debris from under decks, not stacking firewood near your home, storing all outdoor furniture indoors and keeping the lawn around your home mowed and irrigated in at least 30 feet in all directions, are all helpful. Proper landscaping is also important: There should be no vegetation leading to the foundation of your home; there should be a 3-foot border of non-combustible crushed rock around the base of your home.
Woodchips are a hazard. A common issue I see is the use of woodchips for landscaping. This a dangerous practice as one ember can ignite the woodchips, “fueling” a fire in and around your home. To avoid promoting the spread of a fire, explore non-combustible options, as well as fire-resistant vegetation. In addition, all low-hanging branches should be pruned, to at least 6 feet above the ground so a fire does not have the ability to climb up the branches into the tree.
These are just a few ideas as much can be done to prepare an existing residence or construct a more “fire safe” home. The National Fire Protection Association has produced an excellent website, firewise.org, to provide in-depth information on how to minimize the damage caused by a fire. The Big Sky Fire Department is also always available to come to a property and consult with homeowners. Working together, we can all help keep our community safe and resilient.