It was cool and air conditioned inside the County Commissioners’ chambers, but the baking heat outside was never far from anybody’s mind as the group discussed an open burning restriction in an effort to reduce the risk of fire.
The mercury had climbed past 100 degrees outside the building and the gusts of wind would make those unfortunate enough to be in the open think they were standing in the path of an immense blow-drier.
In a way, conditions have been just that. The weeks of heat and low humidity have dehydrated the county’s grass, brush and timber into miles of fuel, just looking for a spark.
Moisture levels in the grass had reached zero percent, said Fire Chief Don Huber. The moisture levels in larger fuels like brush are now on par with what they had been in 2002, the year of the Daly Draw Fire that consumed large swaths of the county.
Northern and southern Campbell County are at special risk, Huber said.
As he spoke, a fire burned to the north of Wright, eating up 795 acres before the fire department contained it. The night before, Huber had been with crews battling fires near the Montana border.
Although he was calling for a restriction, Huber said he didn’t want to ask for a full ban because of the potential impact to businesses that rely on welding and drilling companies that could be restricted from flaring.
As Independence Day looms, the question of what to do about fireworks in the unincorporated area of the county also was a worry.
Huber proposed allowing people to detonate fireworks in the evening when moisture levels would be higher.
Few fires are caused by fireworks, Huber said, indicating that lightning was the biggest risk to the county now. A small percentage of local fires had been caused by fireworks and about a dozen fires this year are still as-yet undetermined.
Representatives from fireworks venders also attended the meeting to speak out against a complete ban.
“If you lump fireworks into the burn ban, you’re going to kill every vendor here, plain and simple,” John LaVallee of Discount Fireworks told commissioners. It didn’t make sense to target his business when garbage burning, trains and welding caused more fires, he said.
He and Randy Sinclair of Six Flags Fireworks said they wouldn’t mind a resolution that cut fireworks use as long as they weren’t banned outright.
“We don’t want to burn the county down,” Sinclair said.
He said they were trying to educate customers. They put lists of safety instructions in fireworks bags. There also would be a safety lecture at a July Fourth pancake breakfast put on by the Boy Scouts, he said.
Under the terms of the ban, fireworks still would be allowed from 8 p.m. and midnight. On July Fourth, residents will be allowed to light fireworks from 8 p.m. to midnight. After Independence Day, fireworks will be banned throughout the county.
“We’re hoping that the public will use judgment this next week,” Huber said.
Fireworks are always banned within the city limits — including July Fourth.
People go out to the county to light fireworks because of the total ban within the city, said Commissioner Matt Avery. He supported finding a place where people could shoot fireworks safely. A designated area could mean pre-burning the land.
Though the current rules do not make up a total ban, the commissioners still can change their minds if conditions get worse.
In the meantime, fire officials are watching the weather.
Bad weather from Monday into Tuesday morning brought 2,375 strikes in Campbell County, southern Montana and Western South Dakota.
Campbell County joins neighboring Crook, Weston and Converse counties in instituting restrictions. A total of 10 counties in the state have now passed restrictions.
Fires banned at Keyhole
State parks have also curbed burning, including Keyhole State Park. Visitors to the park are banned from making wood or charcoal fires of any kind due to the extreme dryness and risk of wild fires. Only lidded gas grills remain allowed. Other parks like Glendo, Guernsey and Hawk Springs have allowed visitors to grill with charcoal if they use lids.
The July 7 fireworks display by the Pine Haven Volunteer Fire Department was canceled about a week ago, the second cancellation in the display’s history.