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GalCo Sheriff’s Office trains for wildfire in Big Sky

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Dr. Brian Crandell (center) explains fire behavior and nearby safety zones to Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office staff. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – A line of marked cars snaked through several Big Sky neighborhoods today as sheriff’s deputies observed the landscape and learned about safety zones in the face of potential wildfire.

As part of annual training, five Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office staff from West Yellowstone to Three Forks gathered in Big Sky to learn from trainer Dr. Brian Crandell with the Montana State University Extension Fire Service Training School. The Wildland Fire Behavior Training covered wildfire trends and potential activity along with evacuation strategies to prepare the sheriff’s office staff to act efficiently in the event of a wildland fire.

According to Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer, the office has been holding these training opportunities for the past decade in partnership with the MSU fire school. Today, however, was the first time the event was held in Big Sky.

“[Our staff doesn’t] play in the fire world all the time and so understanding how fire would behave is important for them recognizing if they’re going to get themselves into a bad spot or not,” Springer said. 

The sheriff emphasized the importance of partnering with the MSU extension adding that this is the only time his staff focuses on fire discussions.

Before touring the trainees around Big Sky, Crandell gathered the group near the helipad at the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center where he walked through various fire scenarios with different wind strengths and fuels. He emphasized the importance of fuel, wind, aspect and slope in assessing and understanding a fire’s behavior. 

In addition to assessing wildfire tendencies, officers must also assess their own risk as well as their role in a real-life wildland fire scenario. 

“We conduct ourselves in a way that is respectful of the hazard, which is putting ourselves where it matters, where it makes a difference in the lives of the people that we’re protecting,” Crandell said. “At the same time making sure that our lives are in that calculation as well.”

Fire is a part of living in the West and has been for hundreds of years, Crandell said. What’s new is the increase in people and development.

According to Springer, in the event of a fire the Big Sky Fire Department will focus on structure protection while the sheriff’s office will be focused on alerting residents of an evacuation notice. In Big Sky’s case, Springer said it’s important to remember that this is a rural area which presents its own challenges in the event of an evacuation. 

Springer said Big Sky has excelled in recent years in implementing strong early detection and warning systems in the form of the Pano AI camera atop Lone Mountain, which detects smoke in the area and alerts a 24/7 Pano AI intelligence center.

In addition to detecting fires in the early stages of ignition, Springer said his office and the fire department are well-equipped to communicate with the Big Sky community in the event of an emergency evacuation.

Residents can visit to sign up for emergency notifications.

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