The Lewis and Clark County Board of County Commissioners voted to enact Stage 2 fire restrictions following a bleak update from fire officials Thursday morning.
The county-wide restrictions go into effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m., though all land within a city boundary is exempted.
"This is not done or taken lightly," Lewis and Clark County Commission Chairman Andy Hunthausen said. "There was much debate about taking this significant step because there are further restrictions on the public, but it is wise to do it at this moment because of the conditions and the risk. It is for the protection of not only the folks who might have to fight the fires and do it with minimal resources at this time, but also protection of both public and private properties and resources."
The restrictions prohibit building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire; smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials; the use of fireworks; and operating motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails.
Between the hours of 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., the restrictions prohibit operating a chainsaw or other equipment powered by an internal combustion engine for felling, bucking, skidding or firewood gathering; outdoor welding or operating acetylene or other type torches with open flame; and using explosives of any kind. Additionally, a one-hour patrol in the work area is required after these activities cease.
The restrictions include the following exemptions: Persons using a cooking device fueled by liquid petroleum or LPG fuels that can be turned on or off, or, within the confines of residential use, a commercial barbecue that utilizes charcoal briquettes; operating generators with an approved spark-arresting device within an enclosed vehicle or building or in an area that is barren or cleared of all overhead and surrounding flammable materials within three feet of the generator; as well as repair, maintenance, and construction of infrastructure, public utilities, and railroads.
Further, agricultural activities other than open burning if unrelated to forest harvest are permitted as long as an operational fire extinguisher or fire suppression equipment is immediately available.
Residential and commercial lawn and grounds maintenance are also permitted under the new restrictions, as are construction site activities on private lands.
"We want to make sure we're making responsible decisions, and I think we're doing that here," Hunthausen said. "I'm sure that as soon as we can take these restrictions off, we surely will."
Ahead of the vote, Wolf Creek Fire Chief Rocky Infanger updated the commission on the status of area fires.
According to Infanger, the Dry Cabin Fire in Lolo National Forest has "potential to move. There is a pathway if things were to go completely haywire. It would come out somewhere up toward Augusta."
The Harris Mountain Fire, now over 25,000 acres in size, recently jumped the county line into Lewis and Clark County, he said.
Other fires of concern, according to Infanger, include the Balsinger, American Fork, Deep Creek and Woods Creek fires.
"Most of those fires are in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, so there's a lot of activity going on around us," Infanger said.
He said the long-term climate outlook predicts above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation through the summer and into fall.
"None of it bodes very well for us. Nothing's giving us any real hope," Infanger said.
In addition to the problematic climate conditions, the state and much of the West are dealing with personnel and equipment shortages. A shortage of jet fuel is also hampering aerial fire suppression.
Infanger said he met with firefighting teams in Cascade County.
"This morning at the briefing, they were talking lack of resources, hard to get stuff on these fires, and they were told to become creative," he said. "There's a lot going on where resources are hard to get. I heard them say this morning that there was 78 outstanding orders for crews that probably aren't getting filled."
In addition to a lack of firefighting personnel, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff and Fire Warden Leo Dutton said the county lacks law enforcement personnel to support firefighting efforts.
"Are we thinking ahead if we use up all the law enforcement in Montana? Yes, we are. We've been on the phone talking about that," Dutton said. "If we get a fire anywhere in our county, we're gonna have to ask for help. There are plans in case that happens."
Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Jim McCormick urged the public to take the necessary precautions.
"I just implore people to be aware, pay attention, that our actions can put other people in peril," McCormick said. "And remember the resources available to extinguish fires are stretched very thin."