PHOTO COURTESY BEN JACOBSEN @benjacobsenphotography

Community goes beyond city limits

Big Sky Fire Department sends crews to fight blaze

Big Sky Fire Department (BSFD) had boots on the ground over the weekend helping battle the zero percent contained, now over 7,000 acre blaze in the Bridgers.

BSFD Chief Greg Megaard, who was born and raised in the Gallatin Valley, said he does not remember ever seeing the Bridger mountains on fire like they were this last weekend.

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin noted during a virtual meeting that the high winds and quickly shifting nature of the flames created a perfect storm on Saturday as deputies worked to evacuate Bridger Canyon.

“[It’s] pretty incredible that we did not lose anyone yesterday, with as quick as that fire moved and with everything that was going on,” he said on Sunday. For Chief Megaard, sending crews to assist was an easy decision.

“We view [that area] as part of our community,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Neighbors help each other, he explained. Someday Big Sky might need help – the dry conditions have him on edge. There is good reason: The west is besieged by infernos – a fact evident when looking at InciWeb.

With the cause of the Bridger Foothills Fire still under investigation and the lightning sparked Lone Star fire causing periodic road closures in Yellowstone National Park, federal governing entities have not yet tightened restrictions. Currently, the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service has not placed any stage one fire restrictions on the Gallatin National Forest and according to the National Park Service website, “There are no fire restrictions currently in place or planned in the park,” despite raising the fire danger to high.

Open burning was banned from Sept. 6 to Sept. 8 via an emergency resolution signed by the Gallatin County Commission.

Chief Megaard is pleading with the public to use caution.

“Fire danger is extremely high,” he said. “Somebody just driving down 191 or Lone Mountain Trail carelessly throwing a cigarette out can start a fire just as easy as anything else. That’s how dry things are right now.” Even the heat emitted by a catalytic converter exhaust system by a vehicle driven in tall grass or a hidden ember in a mostly put-out campfire could spell serious trouble for the community, he explained.

“We analyze our district quite often – looking at the potentials, the risks. That’s why we shut down open burning here two weeks ago – just trying to regulate the potential exposure to somebody not putting something out,” he said. “It just takes a small spark to start a major wildfire.”

The start of hunting season means he is urging hunters to put out fires until they are cold to the touch – drown the campfires. The number one key is just to be responsible, he said. Even construction sites have to be careful right now. BSFD is trying to be proactive to prevent a serious situation, but needs every member of the community to help.

“The community here is really cognizant of where we live, how special it is and how we need to protect it,” he said. “People have done a great job, if they see smoke, they call it in early.”

Corey Lewellen, Custer Gallatin National Forest Bozeman District Ranger defined the Bridger Foothills Fire over the weekend as a “large scale, complex fire” that is a long way from being put out.

“This fire is going to continue to be here. We are going to continue to manage it for the long-term – obviously through September. Then even when that fire is completely out and we are able to get that thing contained, we are still going to be working this fire,” he said, noting a future emphasis on resources and rehabilitation.

It was a dramatic scene for Bozeman residents: a massive plume of smoke rising about the M trail, bright red fire retardant released from the sky, hot shots jumping out of places to use skill and effort against the blaze and hot spots glowing on the mountainside when darkness descended. On Saturday, when the inferno raged with high winds, a few had to deploy their fire shelters.

“We had some firefighters make some really good decisions in a really tough situation,” Lewellen, said of the firemen who are recovering from smoke inhalation sustained while fighting the blaze.

Sheriff Gootkin confirmed on Sept. 8 that 28 homes and an unknown number of outbuildings were lost in Bridger Canyon.

“It’s really a heartbreaker,” Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue Commander Scott Secor said of the fire’s destruction. He explained the chaotic path of the fire: “There are some houses in neighborhoods still standing and right next door [there are homes] burned to the ground.”

Linda McPhail is originally from the east coast, but now calls Bozeman home.

“I unfortunately have been through too many destructive hurricanes to count. This is my first wildfire. In my 60 years of witnessing the destruction from nature, I have never witnessed the outpouring of love and support as what is currently happening in Bozeman,” she wrote on Hiking Bozeman Forum. She went on to explain that people are lending their vehicles to strangers so they can collect pets left behind, sharing their homes and farms with those who cannot go home. Food and drink is being provided to the firefighters and personal items to those who did not have time to collect essentials.

“What I’m witnessing has renewed my hope for humanity and everything good… my head hurts for those who have lost, but my heart is full seeing the love and support,” she wrote.

What homeowners can do:

BSFD encourages homeowners to really look at their property – at the defendable space that is always so critical. Information can be found at bigskyfire.org.

“We are happy to come out and make some recommendations from the fire department’s perspective for defendable space,” Chief Megaard said.

Tom Newberry, owner of Big Sky Tree Removal, has been doing fire mitigation work in the area for over 10 years – it makes up about 70% of his business.

“We try to get enough distance between trees so that if a fire comes through it doesn’t turn into a crown fire, where it jumps from tree to tree. You get enough distance between them and you also limb them up so grass can burn past the trunk. And you usually limb them up about a third of the height of the tree or 10-12 feet if the tree is taller than 30 feet,” he said. Logging is not what it was 50 years ago and places like where the Bridgers are burning have not been logged in a long time, he explained.

Logging is no longer clearcutting, it is picking and choosing which trees get to stay.

He believes healthy forestry practices are essential for mountain properties.

“If you're going to buy forest, you want to go out and thin it – you don’t want your property to spread the fire,” he said.

How to help residents of Bridger Canyon:

To donate money to the Bridger Foothills Fire Relief Fund, text BRIDGERS to 91999 or give online at https://www. greatergallatinunitedway.org or https://www.onevalley.org

Volunteer opportunities can be found at www.volunteermt.org/need/detail/?need_ id=539441

 

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