After recent devastating fires, Lewis & Clark County authorities say planning is crucial

Wildfire Smoke
Posted at 7:01 PM, Jan 05, 2022

HELENA — Last week, the Marshall Fire in Colorado burned more than 1,000 structures. It came just weeks after the West Wind Fire tore through Denton, Montana, in early December. Here in the Helena area, authorities say those were reminders of just how devastating wildfires can be – and that it’s no longer a problem just confined to the summer.

“If we don’t have snow on the ground, we’re basically in fire season, so be prepared,” said Rocky Infanger, Wolf Creek-Craig volunteer fire chief and project manager for the Tri-County FireSafe Working Group.

Both of those recent fires were driven by extreme winds, and Infanger said they show just how dangerous it can be when fire conditions are at their worst – and that fires can spread to places you might not expect to be at risk.

“It’s not that it can’t happen here; it’s basically when it’s going to happen here,” he said.

In the most serious cases, Infanger warned that firefighters

“There’s not enough firemen to place at every house and fire engines to place at every house when these large fires happen like this,” he said. “The focus is going to be to get people out of the way and save lives.”

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, whose office handles evacuations during wildfires, said authorities have been trying to drive home that people should start planning for how they’ll respond, long before a fire begins.

“Now is the time to talk about that – now is the time, when there’s no smoke in the air, when there’s snow on the ground,” he said. “We need to meet and say, how are we going to approach that if a fire that fast should be coming toward Helena.”

Infanger encourages residents to contact their local fire departments to talk about what they can do to mitigate the fire risk around their homes.

“We’re constantly putting the messaging out there to folks – to again be prepared, be aware what they can do,” he said.

Tri-County FireSafe has received several grants to support that work. One funded the FireSafe Helena program, to make vegetation reductions and install more ignition-resistant roofs, siding and decks within the city. Another grant is supporting similar projects in the North Hills.

Infanger and Dutton both encourage people to start thinking about what they’ll if they’re forced to evacuate, where they’ll go and how they’ll keep in communication with their family. The county’s Disaster and Emergency Services website has suggestions for preparedness, including how to put together a “go bag” for if you need to leave quickly.

“Those conversations need to happen,” Dutton said. “It’s unfortunate that we need to have them, but I think maybe having a conversation about a disaster may prevent one.”

Authorities also recommend signing up for emergency notifications, and making sure your information is up-to-date if you move or change phone numbers. In Lewis and Clark County, that can be done through the Smart911 program. Jefferson County uses a system called Code Red.