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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Bonfires ease social distancing during winter

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 31, 2020

By Cameron Evans Tribune News Service

Vincent and Sam Cohea found a way to turn social distancing into a party business.

The 9- and 12-year-old brothers have winterized the old curbside lemonade stand idea with “Bigfoot Firewood” – the crucial ingredient for a winter eve’s bonfire party. Their homemade sign announces “Firewood bundles made with kid power/Wood is 100% organic and free-range, no GMOs.”

The brothers created the stand with the help of their father, Cyrus Cohea, who said the idea started as a way to teach his sons about money and hard work. Vincent said that as of last week, he and his brother had already made about $100 selling the bundles of kindling, paper and matches.

Business has been steady. That may be due in part to the fact that as the temperatures drop and public health officials advise against gathering inside, more people are looking for ways to take small gatherings outside. Bonfires offer both a familiar pastime when opportunities for “normal” social activities are rare.

Although there is no way to ensure zero risk of COVID-19 infection when interacting with others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that indoor spaces are more risky than outdoor spaces where it might be harder to keep people apart and there’s less ventilation.

“That’s one of the two main ways I’ve been seeing friends: going on walks or hanging by a fire pit,” said Emily Armstrong, a Missoula resident. “It just feels like the safest way to hang with people, especially as the weather gets colder and there are just fewer things to do.”

Armstrong said that being inside with others just doesn’t feel like an option right now. She and her boyfriend, Evan Cazavilan, have hosted small bonfires here and there throughout the pandemic but not without precautions. They ask friends to bring masks, for instance, to wear if anyone needs to go inside the house to use the bathroom.

Over the summer, the couple said they tried to spend as much time outside as possible, and they weren’t alone. State parks in Montana saw a huge increase in visitation this summer as more people flocked to the great outdoors.

State parks in the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 2 saw a 46.2% increase in visitors through September of this year compared with the same time last year – the highest jump of any of the regions in the Montana State Parks system.

Missoula’s parks and open spaces have also experienced a jump in visitation. In March, the city’s parks saw a 40% increase in the level of use compared to March of last year, said Morgan Valliant, Missoula ecosystem services superintendent.

“Our big peak was certainly back when shelter-in-place orders were enforced and when all the gyms were closed and folks couldn’t go and do their daily exercise routines,” Valliant said.

Through the spring and summer, more residents utilized Missoula’s public spaces for things like birthday parties, family gatherings, classes, meetings and even book clubs, and as temperatures drop, Valliant said it makes sense that people are introducing fire to the equation.

The city does not allow fires within public parks and although there are some areas outside the city such as campgrounds and day use areas that allow fires, they often require a backyard. But as Missoula grows and the city looks plans to increase high-density housing in the form of more apartments, a yard is a luxury that many residents can’t afford.

Aimee McQuilkin, the owner of Betty’s Divine clothing store in Missoula, said she would love to see the city provide more public gathering spaces with things like fire pits, especially amid the pandemic.

“The city could invest and be creative with their park infrastructure,” McQuilkin said. “Like wouldn’t that be awesome if there were a bunch of burn barrels down in Caras Park on Friday and Saturday?”

McQuilkin recently brought an old burn barrel from a Winter Brewfest out of retirement for a holiday shopping event she hosted with Gild Brewing, which sits next door to her shop. On a day in mid-December, customers who made any purchase at Betty’s Divine (and were of legal drinking age), got a beer from Gild that they could sip around the burn barrel.

“It’s the kind of stuff that we’ve done to pivot and adjust to COVID,” McQuilkin said.

Apart from basic fire safety, there is one caveat to bonfires that is especially important for Missoulians to keep in mind, and that’s their impact on air quality. Valliant said there is a big difference between the impact of a small backyard fire and burning a timber slash pile, but noted that the Missoula valley is prone to inversions during the winter.

“That can create really poor air quality for people,” he said. “That in itself is something to be certainly very cognizant of … COVID and the fact that poor air quality and respiratory issues tend to compound problems with COVID.”

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