HELENA — On the evening of July 4, many Montana firefighters were busy dealing with small fires – some of them sparked by fireworks.
“It seemed like we ran a lot of fire calls,” said Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton.
Dutton said that between 9 p.m. Sunday and 12 a.m., dispatchers reported 24 new fires around the area.
Jerry Shepherd, chief of the West Valley Volunteer Fire Department, said his crews responded to about 16 fires on July 4, with the largest being around one acre. Other departments, including Tri-Lakes and Montana City, reported fires even earlier in the weekend that were suspected to be started by fireworks.
Dutton said a number of the fires were linked to Roman candles and bottle rockets, which had been prohibited for several decades, until the Montana Legislature voted to permit them this year. He said that may mean people weren’t as familiar with how they work.
“Bottle rockets, you think are going to go up and explode, and they don’t,” he said. “They go up and they arch and they come back down and they start fires. That was probably an increase in some of the activity we saw.”
In one case, Dutton said a firework bounded under a vehicle, causing it to catch fire.
Shepherd said, while they responded to a lot of new fire starts, they were able to get them all under control fairly quickly. He said one silver lining with fires started by fireworks is that they generally aren’t unattended, so people can report them immediately and get fire crews on scene quickly.
Dutton said authorities are grateful that the people who accidentally started fires reported them and did what they could to keep them under control.
“We were blessed to have people that took responsibility for the fires they started,” he said.
Dutton also noted that, in some areas of the county, they received rain showers just as the sun went down, which he believes helped limit the number of new fire starts from fireworks.
July 4 is always a focal point of the summer for Montana firefighters – especially this year, when fire conditions are already getting worse. A number of counties – particularly in south-central and southeastern Montana – put fire restrictions in place before the holiday.
Lewis and Clark County hasn’t instituted additional restrictions yet, but Dutton said they will be meeting with state agencies and leaders from neighboring counties this week to discuss possible next steps. He said the thing they’ll be watching most closely will be the number of fires determined to be human-caused.
“If people are being responsible, the last thing we want to do is close things down,” he said. “It really depends on people taking responsibility.”
The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office also received about 40 fireworks complaints the night of July 4. The Helena Police Department responded to 23 that day.