Water, wind and fire, oh my 

Seven years ago, Grant Creek, Lolo Creek and the Clark Fork River flooded and damaged four bridges and flooded 82 basements. Nine years ago, a tornado blew through Holland Lake and crushed three cars. Much earlier, 70,000 years ago, the Yellowstone Caldera, a series of large volcanic depressions in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, exploded.

These natural disasters, and others, are documented in a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan recently adopted by the Missoula City Council and county commissioners. The plan is a prerequisite for the city and county to be eligible to receive funds for natural disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In addition to disaster relief, says County Director of Emergency Services Jane Ellis, the state also receives roughly $250,000 annually from FEMA, for which counties can apply and put toward preventive projects.

Money aside, though, the plan is a rubber-necker’s dream log of Mother Nature showing her muscle.

In 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted. When the mountain, two states away, had finished spewing, Missoula County was blanketed by at least one tenth of an inch of ash, and losses were estimated at $300,000. A thunderstorm in 1998, with wind gusts up to 69 mph, “damaged roofs, mobile homes, power poles and caused one fatality.” Property damage was estimated at $260,000.

The report documents the fires of 2003 as a recent example of nature in a state of hyperactivity: “Lightning strikes ignited a swarm of fires surrounding Missoula, some of which were visible from parts of the city.”

Charlie Vandam is senior environmental scientist with Land and Water Consulting, Inc., a Missoula-based engineering and natural resource consulting firm contracted to write the report. Vandam, along with other research scientists, pored over old reports and newspaper articles to collect the data. Vandam says he was most surprised to learn the impact of tornado-scale winds on the Great Idaho Fire of 1910. With similar winds, the 2003 fires might have moved into Missoula proper, he says.

It might be tempting fate to ask about a sequel to the 2004 plan. Nonetheless, the Yellowstone Caldera’s geysers and ground deformations, according to the plan, are “currently restless.” The mitigation plan offers no advice about what to do if and when it blows.

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