Fairfield under water restrictions, communities prepping for fire season

Fire chief: ‘The way things are going, we’re going to have a terrible fire year’

By: - April 28, 2022 4:49 pm

Fairfield may soon be filling the town pool — not for swimming but in case firefighters need to tackle a blaze in town.

“We have to make sure we have water available for fire protection,” Mayor Loren Tacke said this week. “And one of the things we’re looking at doing is filling the swimming pool just for fire protection right now. We really hope we never have to worry about that, but you need to be aware that that is a possibility, and we’re going to need water.”

Wells are lower than they have been in recent years, and they aren’t recharging quickly given the snowpack and water melt, Tacke said. So Fairfield is asking its citizens to conserve water and hold off on lawn sprinkling as Montana braces for another tough fire season.

“This year, obviously, we didn’t have a whole lot of winter,” Tacke said.

As reported by the Choteau Acantha, the town council imposed water restrictions in the middle of April because of shortages and drought. Tacke told the Daily Montanan the restrictions will be in place as the town awaits the release of water from the canal and recharge of wells.

“We did not shut down the local car wash or anything,” Tacke said. “We just asked them to help conserve water.”

In other words, he said, people shouldn’t fill their hot tubs just yet or wash off their sidewalks. A Facebook post that notes that pressure washing is also off limits for the time being. At the end of May, Tacke said he expects the pool will be refilled for swimming.

The most recent climate briefing from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration counts 55 percent of the United States in drought, and most of Montana in “extreme drought.” The forecast also calls for “degradation” in the West.

In December, a wildfire pushed by high winds scorched the town of Denton. Ryan Peterson, Fergus County disaster and emergency management services coordinator, said this week fire chiefs have been meeting on a regular basis in preparation for the next season.

“Everyone understands that right now, we’re still in drought conditions,” said Peterson, also fire warden. “Water sources that were readily available two years ago before last summer are still dry, and we don’t see the precipitation coming to get us back to where we were. So we’re gearing up.”

He said crews are replacing and repairing equipment from last season “‘cause it got beat up so bad.” They’re hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst, and they’re also planning to put as many resources on any sparks as early as possible.

“There was a false sense that with the drought and nothing growing, that everything was grazed down enough,” Peterson said of the situation last year. “Well, it turns out there is a lot.”

Now, he said, communities out on the prairies are realizing they might be at a higher risk for fire, too. In Denton, he said, the extent of the fire last year surprised people.

“We didn’t think a town could burn like that,” Peterson said.

In Fairfield, Fire Chief Nick Dale said he recalls just one other time when the town filled its swimming pool in order to prepare for fire, likely in the early 2000s. They didn’t have to use it, though.

“No, thank God,” Dale said.

Historically, the wells are lower this time of year, he said, but this year, they’re five years into a drought: “So it’s kind of getting a little bit dicey right now.”

He said he’ll likely decide Friday whether the pool needs to be filled and ready for any possible structure fires in town while wells recharge. But this year, he also said the “run time” on the wells has dropped, which is good, and he believes it’s because people understand the problems related to drought and are conserving water.

“I think they realize it’s really dry, and if they want to be able to brush their teeth and flush the toilet, they better not be running it on their yards,” Dale said.

He also said he hopes people are cautious with prescribed burns because no one needs a runaway fire right now, with communities short on water and volunteer firefighters.

“Boy, the way things are going right now, we’re going to have a terrible fire year,” Peterson said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.