Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Mountain Gateway a catastrophic wildfire risk

by Richard Hildner
| January 13, 2022 12:00 AM

On Tuesday, the Whitefish mayor and City Council will be asked to approve or deny the Mountain Gateway planned unit development, consisting of 318 housing units and a commercial “island” at the junction of the Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive. Based on my 17 years of experience in wildland fire management, this project creates an unacceptable risk of catastrophic wildfire and the associated. loss of property and human life is just too great.

Fire managers and fire chiefs have long recognized that it is not a question of if but when the Big Mountain face will burn in a forest fire. The 2021 Flathead County Wildfire Protection Plan identifies the entire area north of Reservoir Road and East of Whitefish Lake, all the way to the Whitefish Divide, as being in the highest and next to highest wildfire risk to homes. That same document says there should be at least two ways out in case of fire. This entire area, including Mountain Gateway, has only one potential route of escape, East Lakeshore Drive/Wisconsin Avenue.

The recently published Whitefish Fire Master Plan notes that Wisconsin Avenue has been given a level of service rating of F — the lowest possible level of service — by the Montana Department of Transportation. This same plan makes note that our current fire station is understaffed by three firefighters. The Mountain Gateway developer has offered to donate 1.5 acres for a future fire station as a public benefit. However, to build, staff, and equip another station will cost city taxpayers millions of dollars.

Currently our fire department does not have a ladder truck with a live stream snorkel to fight a fire in the proposed four-story apartment building. The city’s wildfire suppression capability consists of two brush trucks with full-stream capacity of only three and a half minutes. The response time from the Whitefish station is eight minutes, another eight minutes is required to prepare the equipment once on scene. A wildfire originating in or spreading into the proposed development from along East Lakeshore could easily spread at a rate of 3.5-4 miles per hour. The Camp Fire, Paradise, CA covered the first 10 acres in 14 minutes before burning 18,000 structures and claiming 86 lives.

Further, there is no assurance that construction standards and architectural design will conform to FireWise building in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), as outlined by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. The developer makes no mention of “defensible space,” a basic tenant of development in the WUI. No requirements for fire hardening structures and no requirements for external sprinklers as protection from an ember storm are identified.

In sum, the risk to an additional 600-800 residents and visitors from wildfire is too great. Until the city develops and approves a Fire Emergency Response Plan, as called for in the fire department master plan, this and other similarly situated proposed developments should be rejected. The Whitefish Planning Board has recommended denial of the Mountain Gateway project. I urge the mayor and council to do the same.

Richard Hildner lives in Whitefish. He is a former Type I Fire Behavior Analyst and a member of Flathead Families for Responsible Growth.

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