By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – Gallatin County wrapped up the first round of community meetings addressing updates to the county’s Hazard Mitigation and Community Wildfire Protection plans on Feb. 9 in Belgrade, after hosting additional sessions in Three Forks, Bozeman, West Yellowstone and Big Sky.
These meetings were the first step in reviewing and prioritizing risks to the communities and addressed area-specific concerns as the county proceeds with the routine update to the hazard plan.
Representatives from Gallatin County Emergency Management and the consulting firm Respec broke the county into five districts. The region encompassing Big Sky stretches north to the 35-mph bridge and south on Highway 191 to the Taylor Fork area and Yellowstone National Park boundary.
Among concerns raised during the Feb. 8 meeting in Big Sky were the threats of a mass casualty incident, ground transportation accidents and limited transportation access, which were identified as individual hazards but also recognized as being interconnected problems.
With a thriving tourism economy, growth in community events, and increasing bus traffic in Gallatin Canyon carrying skiers and commuters to Big Sky, individuals from the Big Sky Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, Yellowstone Club Fire Department, Big Sky Resort and Big Sky Resort Area District tax board all agreed that an incident whereby multiple people are injured is becoming more likely.
“When you look at the frequency with which we now have high-density events, it can have a really significant impact, whether that’s PBR concerts [or] a big ski day,” said Mike Unruh, mountain operations manager for Big Sky Resort. “I don’t know our busiest day this year [at Big Sky Resort], but we have touched 8,000 in a regular ski day and event days can be bigger.”
In addition to large congregations of people, the types of visitors to Big Sky could make the area a target for human-caused incidents such as terrorism or an active killer.
“The high level of personalities that could be in Big Sky on a given day could cause a problem,” said Marianne Baumberger, fire information and education coordinator for the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
Big Sky has hosted former President Barack Obama and other well-known public figures. Additionally, on 9/11, directors of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were all in Big Sky, “which turned into a security nightmare,” said Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat.
According to Farhat, Big Sky is not equipped to handle mass illness or injury. “It can easily overwhelm us because we can have 15,000, 20,000 people here on a big day and we don’t have the facilities—we’re geared more for lower numbers,” he said.
“From 2012 to now, the amount of traffic in the canyon has jumped exponentially,” Farhat added. “One bus can hold 65 people. You have 45 injuries out of that and we could be overwhelmed. … For us, that is treating the patients, and we have a transportation issue and potential hazmat issue. It can become a really big problem really fast.”
He also added that if a traffic accident is south of the junction of Lone Mountain Trail and Highway 191, it could be difficult to transport victims to the hospital. In the event of a hazardous waste spill, the entire road through the canyon could be blocked, and the county’s hazmat team is located in Bozeman.
“Our limited egress and ingress capacity means when we can get people out, we can’t get resources in,” Farhat said. “We know in this community that it’s a very fragile transportation network, [and] it doesn’t take much to disrupt and cause huge problems.”
During this meeting, community members prioritized the list of 21 named risks to the area based on the item’s likelihood of occurring and its potential impact on the population, property and the economy. The data gathered at each of the district meetings will be included as appendices in the final plan and will contribute to developing a county-wide risk assessment, the draft of which will be released this summer.
In addition to concerns over accessibility, transportation and mass injury, the Big Sky group identified wildfire and a critical infrastructure disruption as some of the top hazards for the area.
During a brief discussion on potential projects that could mitigate risks, the group considered creating a more resilient transportation network. Farhat also said coordination between Madison and Gallatin counties continues to be critical for Big Sky.
Every five years, federal law requires that local governments update their Hazard Mitigation Plan. The current process was initiated at the end of 2017 to update the 2012 plan. Grants to help fund pre-disaster actions and funding to support recovery efforts are only eligible to areas that have hazard plans and have participated in pre-disaster efforts.
This year’s process will also include updates to the 2006 Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which is specific to wildfires and directly impacts actions taken by the Forest Service.
Patrick Lonergan, the director of Gallatin County Emergency Management, said a unique part of Big Sky is that a large portion of the area is surrounded in timber, putting the district at risk. One goal for the planners is to more clearly map out the wildland-urban interface throughout the county, he added. Jessica Haas, an ecologist for the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, will help direct this process.
For more information about the county’s updates to the Hazard Mitigation Plan and Community Wildfire Protection Plan, visit readygallatin.com/mitigation.