The story of Helena and its past are inextricably connected to the presence of fire on the surrounding landscape that has famously extended into our uniquely urban history of conflagration. It is reflected by those icons that we have chosen to represent our community. Helena’s first symbol was the phoenix, the mythical creature rising from the ashes, chosen because Helena had been burned so many times and as many times rebuilt from the destruction. Our city seal later became the Fire Tower, a symbol representing the guardian on a hill that protected our predecessors for decades from the ravages of fire. This history, taken together with tragic headlines that we’ve read in recent years from communities across the west, should serve as a call to action for us all. Fire is still a part of our landscape and each of us, our families and our neighbors must be prepared to live with it.
Though the wildland fire season currently seems in the distant future, there is no time like the present to ask ourselves what we are going to do to prepare for the very real potential of fire coming into our neighborhoods. As importantly, how are we going to act when it does?
An important first step in addressing those questions is having an awareness that citizens need to share the responsibility within a community to help minimize the impacts (loss of life and property) when a fire comes to town. We have fire departments, law enforcement and emergency medical personnel to help respond to such a disaster. But, as we’ve seen in many western cities and towns recently, those resources are stretched thin and can only do so much. Sometimes, all they can do is get out of the way, as with any other natural disaster. Don’t rely solely on the government to protect you, your family and your property.
Homeowners can take important action to make their structures and the land on which they are built to be less prone to ignition by fire. There’s a tendency to think that communities ravaged by fire are destroyed by a wall of fire sweeping through neighborhoods. The truth is that the ember shower that travels ahead of a wildland fire (a mile or more) is usually responsible for the ignition of vegetation and homes. The entire city of Helena will be susceptible to such a shower coming from the south. Once homes begin to ignite, they then become intense fuel packages that cause the surrounding fuels (vegetation, structures) to ignite. Use building materials of “ignition resistant construction” (steel siding vs. wood, asphalt shingles vs. cedar shakes) wherever possible. Keep your property clean of combustibles. The more you can do in those regards, the less likely fire gets a foothold in your neighborhood.
Law enforcement has primary responsibility in facilitating public evacuation in a wildfire once such an order is given. However, citizens can easily share in that responsibility by taking some simple, but critical actions well ahead of a wildfire. Make a plan for what you, your family and your neighbors will do in the event an evacuation order is given. Think about what you will do if you’re at work and your kids are at home. Have you taken into account how your pets and other animals will be protected? How will you get out of your neighborhood and where will you and your loved ones meet? Talk about and practice your plan. During wildfire season, be aware of local weather conditions and know where to go to get news about wildfire and extreme fire conditions.
TriCounty FireSafe Working Group is a local organization that has been working for over 30 years to provide financial and educational resources to residents in Broadwater, Jefferson and Lewis & Clark counties that specifically address these important issues. We meet on the second Thursday of each month and the public is encouraged to attend. For more detailed information, find us on Facebook or at tcfswg.org and feel free to contact us with any questions or requests.
Sean Logan is a former City of Helena fire chief and current member of the TriCounty FireSafe Working Group.