A few weeks back, this column featured a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the city’s efforts to regulate dog owners on public land. We received a stack of sternly worded letters in response from parents sick of dogs harassing their wee ones in parks. Several derided the Indy for taking up an irresponsible position on a public menace unleashed, pun intended, by the Generation Y cadre.

Then, last Wednesday, two pups stole a lighter out of a parked car to light a phone book on fire, igniting 390 acres of Mount Sentinel’s west slope. We now retract our previous libertarian proclamations regarding the use of public land. Children must be regulated.

As Missoulians pulled up lawn chairs and cracked beers to watch firefighters bravely ply their dangerous trade, many lamented a loss of naivety. Forget the fire season forecasts based on weather gone by—when grass dries out, the flames heed no predictions. All it takes sometimes is a seven- and eight-year-old goofing off unsupervised to send one raging. Smokey the Bear wasn’t whistling Dixie, kids.

At this point, the effects of the blaze seem pretty clear. Hikers and runners, obviously, lost use of the mountain trails for five days and now must deal with a track that’s gone from scenic and classy to ashy and ashier.

On the science front, UM botanists are bummed because the fire wiped out progress made in the battle to rid the mountain of invasive weeds. Finally, you can surely spot the financial repercussions: Bet your bottom dollar the next mill levy round will include a fire suppression item here and there. Bet your top dollar they’ll pass. Whatever’s left just throw into the fire for good measure.

So, with less trail to hike, property taxes likely to increase and the landscape marred, Missoulians can surely see that children under 12 should be leashed. It’s all about the fire. Nothing to do with all those times someone’s little cherub interrupted a lady moment with a booger disclosure. Not at all.

All right, that’s just the battle scars talking. It doesn’t take a peer-reviewed study to recognize the intergenerational tension in any town attractive to students, seniors, families and overqualified 20-something powder hounds with suit allergies. Open space just happens to serve as Missoula’s battleground. Nobody, we hope, wants to see things degrade into lazy regulation—that’s not what western Montana is about.

Still, if it comes down to drawing up lines—God knows it will—at least our dogs never burned down a mountain. Except for the time we used a Great Dane to recreate the fight scene from The Jungle Book. Smokey never saw that.
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