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National program will support Big Sky wildfire preparedness

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Big Sky Fire Department participates in a tabletop evacuation exercise in 2021. PHOTO COURTESY OF DUSTIN TETRAULT

Experts to advise evacuation plan

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – As concern over Big Sky’s preparedness for wildfires continues to smolder, local partners are taking advantage of a national wildfire planning program that will help guide efforts to develop an evacuation plan and other preventative measures.

The Big Sky Fire Department with the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky applied to the national Community Wildfire Planning Assistance Program which provides Big Sky with access to a wide variety of experts who will provide recommendations and support local projects. The two main projects stakeholders will focus on are: evacuation planning and modeling and communication strategies.

 “I just feel really fortunate that Big Sky was able to qualify to get involved in this program,” said Brad Niva, CEO of the chamber.

CPAW, a program of Bozeman-based nonprofit Headwaters Economics, focuses on wildfire mitigation and public safety in the wildland-urban interface, according to Program Manager Doug Green. He added that CPAW recognizes fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, and the program’s goal is to prepare a community to weather that inevitability with minimal casualties.

“The CPAW team is excited to work with the Big Sky community,” Green wrote in an email to EBS. “We understand that there are tremendous challenges and risks to Big Sky. We also see the commitment and dedication the leadership and community of Big Sky possess and feel optimistic that we can decrease the wildfire risks to Big Sky and make it a more wildfire adapted and safer community for not only the residen[ts], but also for the visitors.”

BSFD Deputy Fire Chief Dustin Tetrault said he’s applied for this program three times in the past and received a small amount of assistance. This year, however, when the fire department applied jointly with the chamber and VBS, Tetrault said Big Sky’s focus on evacuation planning and education aligned well with CPAW’s goals this year. 

“We’re just really excited,” Tetrault said. “This [program] is going to give us that extra horsepower to be able to get some of these big, low hanging fruit projects that are really going to be beneficial to the community, done.”

BSFD installed a new fire danger sign up at Station #2 on the mountain. PHOTO COURTESY OF DUSTIN TETRAULT

The fire department, the chamber and VBS will be working in tandem with CPAW on the two main priorities as well as a variety of smaller projects such as creating a best-practices manual for building in Big Sky.

VBS is currently updating the wayfinding signage around Big Sky which includes adding information on evacuation routes for visitors, according to Niva. 

“I just think it’s a really important thing that we start to look at how we communicate with our visitors and making sure that they have the resources to escape Big Sky if we had a fire,” Niva said.

During the summer on an average night, Niva said Big Sky hosts well over 15,000 people. He suggested residents would likely know where to go in an emergency, but visitors need to be educated.

This effort to communicate with visitors dovetails nicely with a shift that VBS is making to focus more on destination management rather than marketing. 

“The chamber and Visit Big Sky are concerned about our visitors and our visitor economy,” Niva said. “This is where we should be working now. [Wildfire is] the number one threat to our tourism industry in the summertime and to our residents.”

While the chamber and VBS can contact and educate tourists in the case of an emergency, the fire department’s focus will be defining evacuation routes and plans that can be shared with residents and visitors alike with help from contractors and experts. 

“Evacuation concerns and wildfires is on the forefront of everybody’s mind,” Tetrault said. “They [were] identified in our community risk assessment as the No. 1 thing as well. There’s just so many projects that go along with that to try and reduce the risk of the community or maybe reduce the impacts to the community.”

Tetrault said the most important thing is for residents to sign up for the county’s mass notification system, Everbridge, and to follow relevant social media channels, like the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, for the most up-to-date information.

CPAW started work with Big Sky on May 1 and Green said he expects the projects to continue at least into 2023. Four other communities will be working with CPAW in 2022 including Estes Park and Grand County, Colorado as well as Woodside and Portola Valley, California.

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