Madison County issues countywide ban, Gallatin bans in Big Sky, West Yellowstone
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – The night sky in Big Sky will be lit only by stars this July Fourth following the Gallatin County Commission’s approval of an emergency ordinance on June 30 banning fireworks in Big Sky and West Yellowstone. The ordinance follows “stacks” of public comments, according to commissioners, requesting the ban, primarily from the Big Sky and Hebgen Basin areas.
The Madison County Commission also approved a firework ban for the entire county earlier on June 30. Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart said that nearly all public commenters, from Big Sky to Virginia City, were in support of the ban.
The Gallatin ban applies to what the ordinance describes as the Big Sky High Fire Hazard Area, or land in Gallatin County south of milepost 61.5 on U.S. Highway 191; and the West Yellowstone High Fire Hazard Area, or the land in Gallatin County south of milepost 32 on U.S. 191. The Gallatin County ban is in effect for 30 days and Madison’s ban is in effect indefinitely.
Though fireworks are one of many traditions used to commemorate the United States’ Independence Day, the West is currently plagued by drought, high winds and scorching temperatures. Both Gallatin and Madison counties jumped from a moderate to severe drought rating from June 21-28, joining about 38 percent of Montana in the designation.
“From a fire season perspective, it is incredibly dry,” said Cory Lewellen, district ranger with the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s Bozeman Ranger District. “Since the beginning of June, we’ve really seen August-like conditions.”
Lewellen said the ranger district has been monitoring energy release component—how readily a fire can burn and how quickly it can grow—for the last 10 years in Bozeman. Currently the ERC has been above the maximum measured in the last decade. “If we have a fire start, that fire can really get going. It’s dangerous right now.”
This, paired with recent record heat waves and blustering winds sweeping the region, have made for high fire danger and in some cases, early-season fires.
On June 17, a wildfire swallowed a tree and the surrounding acre near the South Fork Loop in Big Sky. The following day, another fire ignited south of the Riverhouse BBQ & Events alongside U.S. Highway 191. Both fires were contained quickly but were a testament to the current dire conditions and a reminder to the local community and visitors of the present risk.
Big Sky resident Michelle Horning was one of many to reach out to the Gallatin County Commission to request a firework ban. She said current fire danger as well as the two recent local fires inspired her to reach out.
“I think anyone that visits Big Sky or lives here knows that we have many neighborhoods that are very treed, and I just feel like being proactive about not having fireworks this year is the right thing to do to protect everyone’s homes and people and pets,” Horning told Explore Big Sky on June 30. Horning has lived in Big Sky since 1994 and said she can’t recall a year where conditions were this bad this early.
In addition to public comments, the Big Sky community members demonstrated their favor of a fireworks-free Fourth of July by supporting the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation’s decision to cancel its annual fireworks sale.
Each summer, BSSEF sets up a firework stand a few weeks before the Fourth. The sale is one of their biggest fundraisers and makes up a crucial portion of their budget—last year the stand brought in $45,000. On June 24, BSSEF announced it would not sell fireworks this year.
“We want to ensure the safety of our community this 4th of July and preserve the surrounding environment,” Jeremy Ueland, the program’s director, wrote in a press release. “We believe fireworks are a high-risk activity this season and hope that anyone who decides to use them does so safely, legally, and responsibly. We will be doing our part by not offering fireworks for sale this summer.”
To make up for the lost funds, BSSEF launched an online fundraiser. To date, the alternative appeal for donations has raked in $24,000, including a $10,000 contribution from the Lone Mountain Land Company and $5,000 from Big Sky Build. The Yellowstone Club Community Foundation announced on June 30 that they would match the next $10,000 raised to help BSSEF reach their goal of $45,000.
“The decision that BSSEF made was a very difficult one for them to make, but I think the community at large appreciates their commitment to putting the citizens in the area first,” said Big Sky Real Estate VP of Sales Ania Bulis.
While Big Sky’s sole firework stand will be vacant, the Bozeman, Belgrade and Four Corners areas are still stocked with stands. At the Gallatin County Commission’s first reading of the emergency ordinance banning fireworks, Quinton Field with Big Box Fireworks in Belgrade spoke out against the ban.
“I understand that the products that I sell can be problematic for all these agencies. In my 20 years of doing it, I’ve seen years that were drier than this where I’m at [in Belgrade],” said Field, a volunteer fireman who says he educates customers on firework use and safety as a fireworks salesman.
Neither of the counties’ bans prohibit the sale of fireworks, only the use.
The Arts Council of Big Sky, which puts on a large, public fireworks display each July Fourth during a free music performance, announced on June 27 that it was canceling the show this year due to fire danger.
“I feel like the Arts Council like many people thinks that the safety of the community is the No. 1 thing when we’re doing any events,” Arts Council Executive Director Brian Hurlbut told EBS on June 30.
Hurlbut said that recent local fires, fire danger ratings and no forecasted precipitation led the Arts Council to their decision. He added that the community sentiment, evident through social media and the support provided to BSSEF, ushered them toward canceling the show.
“We want to be reflective of what the community is responding to and it seems to me … and our board of directors and the staff that overwhelmingly people don’t want any fireworks this year,” Hurlbut said.
Though the sky will remain dark, the Arts Council’s Music in the Mountains will return on July 3 and 4 after a pandemic hiatus in 2020, and other holiday festivities will decorate the weekend with red, white and blue.
“Obviously we’re disappointed that we can’t have fireworks,” Hurlbut said. “It’s a huge part of the July Fourth event. It’s such a cool place to see the fireworks, and I know a lot of people are going to miss them, but we still have a great event that night. It’s going to be a great party, and obviously we’re just excited to get back to live music and we’ll just have to do with that.”
Mira Brody and Joseph T. O’Connor contributed reporting to this story.