By Ellen Thompson
In a survey of Hill County's possible sources of disaster, the following topped the list: flood, wind, hail, hazardous materials and fire.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered to fund disaster mitigation and wildfire prevention plans that are submitted to FEMA by September. The first step is surveying the public about its concerns, a process that began this week in Hill, Blaine and Phillips counties.
In a meeting in Havre on Thursday, county and city officials as well as rural fire chiefs and members of the public discussed past and future problems.
The Fresno and Beaver Creek dams each received attention.
A Kremlin resident said silt in Fresno Reservoir is a big problem, citing a humorous, but symptomatic incident when a man and his wife were boating in the reservoir and ran aground, needing a helicopter to retrieve them.
Hill County planner Clay Vincent said heavy spring runoff several years ago caused the reservoir to fill with water completely. Had the reservoir not been relatively empty at the time, he said, it would have caused flooding.
Jeremy Giovando, hydraulic engineer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said silting in Fresno is to be expected, and is the type of problem that is accounted for when a dam is built.
"The Milk River is a prairie stream and inherently there is going to be a lot of sediment," he said.
A survey in 1999 showed a loss of 36,000 acre feet of storage in Fresno due to sediment, with another 92,880 acre feet of storage remaining. The study showed an average yearly loss of 600 acre feet since the dam was completed in 1939.
The only cost-effective way to address the siltation would be to raise the dam, he said. The Bureau of Reclamation does not have any plans for Fresno other than continued monitoring.
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said the commissioners are also investigating the possibility of seepage from the Beaver Creek Dam.
Bessette said the dam's designers believe the source of water seen coming under the dam is an underground spring, while an engineer hired by the county to assess the dam has said that the problem is a dam seep.
The commissioners are meeting this morning with a representative of the dam's designers and the engineer to discuss the issue further.
Vincent said a problem with that dam would affect Box Elder.
If there is a seep, dam repair would be a possible use of FEMA funds, said Daphne Digrindakis, an environmental engineer with Maxim Technologies, the company that is helping write the predisaster plans.
Plans also exist to make improvements at Fresno. A project proposed by the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group to repair the St. Mary Diversion may also include money for raising Fresno Dam.
Digrindakis at Thursday's meeting made other suggestions about disasters to examine, including hazardous materials and wind.
Though the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. has its own hazardous materials teams to address derailments or leakages, Digrindakis said Havre-based emergency personnel would likely be the first to respond and might want to apply for funds to purchase more equipment.
The possibility of a release of hazardous materials was also discussed in Wednesday night's meeting in Chinook. Blaine County's disaster and emergency services coordinator, Haley Gustitis, said that county does not have any way of responding to a hazardous materials emergency. Its current emergency plan requires contacting one of the state's six hazardous materials response teams.
Digrindakis suggested the counties create goals for each plan that address ways to mitigate a hazardous material emergency.
Also discussed were strategies for enhancing communications for rural fire departments throughout the county. Consultant Geoff Bass suggested that the county consider citizens band radios and hooking up a new repeater, as well as collaborating with Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation emergency services to address dead spots in the Bear Paw Mountains.
Bass said satellite phones might be a good investment because in the case of a disaster, cell phone towers might be overwhelmed with calls.
Hill County Undersheriff Don Brostrom said the Sheriff's Office is working on a plan to make its communications compatible with other agencies across the Hi-Line, an effort that would include rural fire districts.
Hail and high wind are major sources of property damage in the area, Digrindakis said. There were no immediate plans for how to address this, though Digrindakis did suggest that the county identify shelters and keep an in-house list of vulnerable populations, such as children and elderly, that should be aided first in the case of a major storm.
FEMA also asks that counties submit a wildfire plan that takes into account fire sources and possibilities for abatement. Solutions may include more training and equipment for rural fire departments.
The purpose of the plans is to save federal dollars in the long run by reducing the danger and cost of disasters before they strike, rather than shelling out funds year after year in response to disasters.
For a local government to take part in the program, it must submit a disaster plan and a wildfire plan by September, but it can continue to update the plan. Counties have been grouped in order to take advantage of the possibility that shared problems may have a common solution.