With fire conditions on par with the depths of August, county commissioners across western Montana implemented stage 1 fire restrictions ahead of Independence Day, with four counties also banning fireworks on all public and private land.
The stage 1 restrictions take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday, one day before the Fourth of July. Such restrictions are common later in the year for the state's western region, though they're rare in early July.
Missoula, Lake, Ravalli and Lincoln counties included fireworks bans with the restrictions.
“Stage 1 typically does come up at some point in the summer,” said Adriene Beck with Missoula County’s Office of Emergency Management. “As we sit in on these conference calls, we look at them with a skeptical eye. I think, this year above previous years, it’s very appropriate at this stage to impose such restrictions.”
The action restricts building and maintaining campfires on all public and private lands. Smoking must take place in an enclosed vehicle or areas devoid of vegetation.
In Missoula, Lake, Ravalli and Lincoln counties, the use of fireworks is also prohibited, including in county parks and on private property. The counties implemented the restrictions in consultation with local, state and federal agencies.
“It’s important to highlight that anyone who chooses to ignore this, lights fireworks and causes a fire will be held financially liable for the costs,” said Anne Hughes, communications director at Missoula County.
Counties covered by the stage 1 restrictions include Missoula, Ravalli, Mineral, Sanders, Lake, Flathead and Lincoln. The city of Missoula also implemented stage 1 restrictions.
The ban on fireworks takes effect immediately in Lake County and starts at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday in Lincoln County. The ban in Missoula and Ravalli counties takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
Missoula bans the use of most fireworks year-round, and Polson, Ronan and St. Ignatius banned them immediately Tuesday.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also banned fireworks, effective immediately, on all tribal lands.
Fireworks are always prohibited on national forest lands, state forests and in national parks.
Despite the fireworks ban and the risk of wildfire, some retailers plan to continue selling their wares.
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Most fireworks dealers invest thousands of dollars on inventory and try to sell it in the days heading into Independence Day.
“The law allows you to sell fireworks, even if they’re restricted,” said Shane Clouse, whose family has run Missoula's Pink Grizzly fireworks stand on Russell Street for nearly 45 years. “It says you can still sell the product you’ve invested in.”
Using fireworks any time of year requires personal responsibility, Clouse said. Fireworks dealers aren’t required to cite the current restrictions when selling their items.
“It would be unwise for us to stop selling – it’s our business,” said Clouse. “It’s no different if you’re driving a vehicle or lighting a campfire in the backcountry. There’s personal responsibility involved. It doesn’t change anything for us.”
In briefing the commissioners, Beck said the energy release component – an index that gauges how hot and fast a fire could burn – has surpassed levels typically seen in August.
June brought record-high temperatures across the region, along with record-low precipitation. The drought index continues to expand across the Northern Rockies.
“When we look at the potential energy release of a fuel, we’re seeing that at very high levels,” said Beck. “As we head into July and August, typically our driest months of the year, we’re not seeing any precipitation that would be measurable and change our outcome.”
Beck said the restrictions look to curtail human-caused fires and help preserve local and state fire resources for naturally occurring events. More than a half-dozen fires were reported burning across western Montana on Tuesday.
County officials said public fireworks shows planned at Southgate Mall and the Missoula Osprey baseball game are expected to be held, barring a new order from the city fire marshal.
The public shows at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds in Hamilton and Florence Park are also expected to take place, as are those in northwestern Montana counties.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s right before the July Fourth weekend for people who enjoy celebrating in that fashion,” said Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley. “But it would be relatively negligent of us to go against the recommendation that’s been made to us.”
Missoula city and county residents are asked to call 258-4850 to fireworks violations. To report a fire, call 9-1-1.