The Flathead County commissioners on Thursday lifted all fire restrictions within the county.
The unanimous vote rescinds both Stage 1 and Stage 2 restrictions.
Flathead County’s removal of fire restrictions followed similar action over the Labor Day weekend by the U.S. Forest Service, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Glacier National Park.
On Sept. 4, the county kept the restrictions in place because commissioners Pam Holmquist and Gary Krueger were at an impasse over how to proceed. Commissioner Phil Mitchell was out of town and not available for a phone conference call.
Mitchell apologized Thursday for being absent, but said he had taken some vacation time to celebrate his wedding anniversary. Had he been here, he said, the county “wouldn’t be stuck at Stage 2.”
Mitchell said the “non-vote” by the other two commissioners didn’t help farmers, loggers and other business interests.
Krueger said he based his decision to support lifting all fire restrictions last week on weather forecasts and fire energy release component data that showed the component level had dropped below a high rating. He also maintained any fire restrictions are an imposition on private property rights.
Creston Fire Chief Gary Mahugh, who served as the county’s operations planning section chief and helped coordinate resources during the height of this summer’s fire season, sent an email to the commissioners on Wednesday offering his perspective on the fire restrictions.
“I do not believe we are taking away some constitutional right to limit fires or even restrict them entirely when conditions are such that the greater public safety should be the main concern,” Mahugh said. “I also believe there is a time when ‘economy’ (economic impact) needs to be considered when it comes to any kind of restrictions.
“I think we did that this year and I commend the commission in doing what you did with restrictions, including the fireworks ban,” Mahugh continued. “I do not believe we in any way adversely affected anyone with our restriction process. Not having a recreational fire has little economic impact to anyone — a valley full of smoke certainly does as we experienced this summer.”
The city of Whitefish, which also had imposed Stage 1 and 2 fire restrictions, on Thursday lifted all restrictions within the city. Interim Fire Chief Joe Page urged caution, however, because the recent rain and cooler temperatures “will not fully compensate for the hotter and drier summer we’ve experienced.”
Mahugh also urged caution in his letter to the commissioners.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” he said. “The dropping of restrictions is probably warranted but it has to be with a strong public message that things are still very dry and all burners must be careful.”
While fire restrictions have been lifted, open burning remains banned until at least Oct. 1.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.