HAMILTON – It’s not often that Ravalli County has the attention of the U.S. House of Representatives, but on Tuesday Hamilton played host to Congressman Greg Gianforte and his field briefing on wildfire management.
Gianforte was joined by three officials who all stressed the importance of good wildfire practices, especially with Montana’s heightened wildfire danger.
"Right now we are at our highest preparedness level we can have. We are at preparedness level 5," said Shawna Legarza, director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service. "Preparedness levels go to five is high and Montana is right on that cusp now of starting to see more of that activity because you are in the dry part of your season."
During the briefing inside the Ravalli County Administration building, protesters gathered outside to show their displeasure with the meeting’s lack of public input.
"The public did not have a chance to be heard and have their comments officially entered into the public record for consideration by, not only representative Gianforte, but by the entire congress because this is a subcommittee," demonstrator Jim Rokosh said. "This should be an attempt to bring in information and then put that forward to the other decision makers and that simply wasn’t done."
During the meeting, ideas were presented by Gianforte and other officials on how to improve Montana’s wildfire management. One was to increase the amount of available fire crews.
"That is a lack of skilled (labor) We do have a lot of skilled people out there, the agency does, but there has been a drain and there is a real capacity of personnel to do the job," said management consultant Richard Stem.
Officials would also like to see less federal regulations that limit preventative projects in the area.
"Local forest service decision makers should have more flexibility and use of categorical exclusions," said Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows. "The current guidelines are too restrictive and narrow in scope. Consideration should be given to projects in the willdland urban interface or that pose a threat to public safety."
Gianforte said the field briefing was a great opportunity to learn more about wildfires.
"And that’s why I was pleased to use my new chairmanship of this committee to convene this briefing today to really shine a light on what can we do better to for Montana to manage our forests and reduce the threat of wildfires," Gianforte said.