Planning for the worst: Things to know in case of major fires in Cascade County

It’s wildfire season and last July, the city experienced a near miss with a large grass fire that threatened structures on the northern edge of the city.

Officials and emergency responders learned a number of lessons during that incident, but it’s also up to residents to prepare for emergency situations.

Current weather conditions are creating high fire danger and open burning remains prohibited in Cascade County. Campfires under 48 inches in diameter or burn barrels are still allowed, but officials are asking residents to use extreme caution.

“Right now, the smallest spark could set off a grass fire,” said Jason McAllister, chief at Vaughn Fire and Rescue Volunteer Fire Department.

There’s been some discussion of implementing Stage 1 fire restrictions in Cascade County, but no action has been taken yet. That decision would require a recommendation from multiple fire chiefs to the Cascade County Commission for a vote.

All burning prohibited in Cascade County until further notice due to high fire danger

Here’s a compilation of things to know from the Great Falls Emergency Manager Dave Nordel, Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Steve Hester and McAllister, plus information from Ready.gov, an official website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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In a wildfire situation, who makes the determination to evacuate?

The incident commander. That’s the case in both the city and the county.

Where should people go if evacuated?

Public safety officials and emergency notifications will give directions on where to evacuate.

What happens if I choose not to evacuate?

You assume the responsibility for their own safety against the advice of public safety professionals, Nordel said. McAllister said that multiple agencies would go door to door if an evacuation was ordered, but if people choose not to leave, they’re on their own.

How do officials communicate with the public during emergencies?

Through Code Red, social media and traditional media. Code Red is an emergency alert system used by Cascade County and the City of Great Falls to send alerts to registered cell phones and emails. To learn more and register for the system, click here. For incidents in the city, the Great Falls Police Department Facebook page will be a good source of information. Generally, do not call dispatch asking questions about an incident during an emergency unless you are actually experiencing an emergency.

If a major fire breaks out in another area of town, can I go check it out?

You shouldn’t. “Please stay out of our way,” McAllister said. “It hinders our ability to fight the fire.”

Fewer calls over this July 4 holiday than previous years; open burning remains prohibited in Cascade County

How can I prepare my home for wildfires?

According to Ready.gov:

  • Regularly clean the roof and gutters.
  • Maintain an area approximately 30 feet away from your home that is free of anything that will burn, such as wood piles, dried leaves, newspapers and other brush.
  • Connect garden hoses long enough to reach any area of the home and fill garbage cans, tubs, or other large containers with water.
  • Review your homeowner’s insurance policy and also prepare/update a list of your home’s contents.

McAllister also recommends watering lawns when possible and keeping fields irrigated. He said not to stack boards or other flammable objects around homes, check chains on trailers and be careful.

What else should I do before an emergency happens?

Nordel and Hester recommend making family or individual plans on how to evacuate or care for families and animals for 72 hours. “Prepare before the emergency,” Nordel said. Residents should have plans and evacuation kits. Those kits should include medication and those with COPD should be sure to have oxygen or those with critical allergies should be sure to have an Epipen, Hester said. Plans should also include what to do with pets since shelters aren’t always equipped to take animals.

Here’s a list of items to keep in your emergency kit, from FEMA.

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