Missoula County declares “state of emergency” as fire danger grows and weather looms

Citing increased fire danger, Missoula County commissioners on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, a move that opens the county’s operations plan and gives ground commanders the power to control access and order evacuations when necessary.

Adriane Beck, the county’s director of emergency services, said wind and above-average temperatures have pushed the fire danger from “high” to “very high” across Missoula County, increasing the chance that a large fire could erupt.

“We have established points where our fire danger breaks over into a danger that fire becomes more resistant to control,” Beck told commissioners. “A small fire starting is much more likely to become a big fire, and when they become a big fire, they become much more dangerous to the public, as well as our first responders.”

Several fires remain active across western Montana and northern Idaho, including the Beeskove fire north of Missoula and the Crab fire northwest of Hamilton near the Powell Ranger Station.

The forecast calls for above average temperatures into the weekend with a 30 percent chance of daily thunderstorms accompanied by high winds. Beck said fuel conditions are dry and other factors now point to the potential for a fast-growing blaze.

“The amount of heat generated allows these fires to get very big very quickly and become less resistant to control,” Beck said. “It also allows for very volatile conditions which can pose significant hazards to the public.”

Declaring a state of emergency opens the county’s emergency operations plan, which permits county officials to delegate certain authorities to incident commanders on the fire front.

Among other things, the move allows ground commanders to control access to active fires and order evacuations if needed. It also delegates certain authorities to the sheriff’s department.

“It takes that task of getting people out of the way and notifying people and gives it to the sheriff’s department,” Beck said.