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This week, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself with more data about the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs than I knew what to do with. 

For the record, that almost never happens. Operations at the state’s only public adult psychiatric hospital are opaque — media has been blocked from tours given to state lawmakers; patient records are fiercely protected by state and federal law. Ever since the hospital lost federal accreditation in 2022, an avenue of insight via public inspection reports has been off the table. 

Here’s the (rather surprising, in my opinion) silver lining: The hospital’s worsening conditions have given rise to a reform agenda within the administration of Gov. Greg Gianforte. With that mission in mind, many new cooks have arrived in the kitchen. The state has a fairly new Medicaid director, a new head of state health care facilities, and a new interim administrator for the state hospital. And, as MTFP has previously reported, the entirety of the Warm Springs reform project is being overseen by private consultants from the global firm Alvarez & Marsal. 

All those parties are producing a lot of information about their efforts to improve patient safety, retain staff, and upgrade the facility to meet federal standards — and they have to communicate somehow. So earlier this year, the health department created the Montana State Hospital Governing Board, which is composed of the department’s top brass. The group’s second-ever meeting was on Tuesday.

But just because status reports are being created doesn’t mean they’re easily accessible to the public. The first time this group met, I didn’t know about it (nor did other reporters). The April meeting’s agenda listed several presentations from hospital staff and consultants, but those materials were not available online. When I asked the health department’s spokesperson to send copies of the reports, he instructed me to file a public records request. In the journalism world, that’s code for “settle in and wait — we’ll get back to you one day.”

Knowing that the next meeting was coming up sometime this summer, I planned ahead and started checking the state calendar of public meetings every few days. When the meeting notice turned up, the agenda still did not include the reports the board would consider — this time, I got them from another source who was planning to attend. 

As far as I could tell, I was the only reporter and non-state or advocacy group employee who tuned into Tuesday’s public meeting. There were periods for public comment, but no one was there to speak or ask questions. Even the members of the governing board asked few questions of the presenters. 

It took me a few days to wrap my head around all the information that was discussed. Smaller synopses of hospital data have been released in monthly reports from Alvarez & Marsal, but the reports to the governing board were more detailed than anything I’d seen. The frequency of recorded uses of chemical and physical restraints, for example, seclusion of Warm Springs residents, and patient falls were documented by month in different parts of the hospital. Reports on staff vacancies and discharge plans were also more specific, providing additional context to the myriad challenges the facility is facing. 

Of course, that information still doesn’t present a seamless picture of how the state hospital is working. I asked the health department to explain how it arrived at some of its quality improvement goals and how it defines terms like “chemical restraint.” The spokesperson said I could expect answers toward the end of next week. Additional questions about the number, if any, of recent patient deaths — data that was not included in the Tuesday reports — did not receive a response. 

Conceivably, the state press corps can and should serve as another layer of oversight for the web of reforms at the state hospital, where some of the most vulnerable Montanans live for months, and often longer. Suffice to say we’re digging into the information we can get our hands on, and looking for more.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Purchase price paid by Maryland-based DiamondRock Hospitality Company for its acquisition of the storied Chico Hot Springs and adjacent property in the Paradise Valley, announced Wednesday. The company said it is confident it can achieve a “superior return” on its investment. 

Wildlife Watch 🦦

Three floaters’ run-in on Wednesday with one, or possibly two, aggressive otters on the Jefferson River resulted in a 911 call and a helicopter-assisted medical evacuation.

The women had been floating the Jefferson River on inner tubes when they were  approached and attacked by one — or possibly two — otters. The women exited the river near Sappington Bridge, south of Three Forks, and called 911 to report their injuries. One was taken to Bozeman Health via helicopter due to the seriousness of bites to her hands and face. The other two were treated at the scene by first responders including the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, Jefferson Valley EMS, Jefferson Valley Search and Rescue, Whitehall Fire, and the Montana Highway Patrol. A local landowner also assisted.

“While attacks from otters are rare, otters can be protective of themselves and their young, especially at close distances,” a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks release said about the incident.

The release also included a natural history primer on the animals. Otters are members of the weasel family that give birth in April and can be seen with their young during the summertime. They may be protective of food resources, especially when those resources are scarce, according to FWP.

FWP staff posted signs at nearby fishing access sites advising recreationists of the otter activity. No further management action is planned, the department said, adding that recreationists are advised to keep their distance from wildlife to avoid potentially dangerous encounters, reduce stress for the animals, and promote healthy wildlife behavior.

“If you are attacked by an otter, fight back, get away and out of the water, and seek medical attention,” FWP wrote.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Fire Lookout 🔥

Dry lightning ignited multiple new fires last weekend throughout the Mission Valley and Flathead National Forest, where hot, dry conditions and high winds led to fast fire growth. 

On the Flathead Indian Reservation, four fires have since burned more than 31,000 acres according to Inciweb and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire. 

The 13,000-acre Middle Ridge Fire, burning grass and brush 15 miles west of Ronan, is 25% contained as of Friday morning, and the Communication Butte Fire two miles north of Dixon has burned 1,423 acres and is 35% contained. 

The Niarada and Mill Pocket fires have burned a combined 16,745 acres 3 miles west of Highway 28 (Mill Pocket) and 12 miles west of Elmo (Niarada), near the site of the 2022 Elmo Fire. Fire crews set an initial fireline around the perimeter of the Mill Pocket Fire on Wednesday, Aug. 2, and the Flathead Interagency Hotshot Crew has been working to secure the Niarada Fire’s north flank nearest to Lake Mary Ronan. Both fires are 0% contained. 

Then, on Tuesday, Aug. 1, lightning sparked the Holmes Creek Fire in the Mission Mountain range 10 miles east of Polson. The fire is actively burning in steep, rocky terrain and is estimated at 36 acres and 0% contained. A grass fire also broke out on the Bison Range on Thursday, Aug. 3, but was quickly controlled. The cause of that fire is under investigation, according to the CSKT Division of Fire.

The Big Knife Fire, which started July 24 and is located 5 miles east of Arlee, has now grown to 4,412 acres and is 0% contained. The Lake County Sheriff has placed areas west of the Big Knife Fire on pre-evacuation status. 

In the Flathead National Forest, Type 3 management teams have assumed control of the 2,368-acre Tin Soldier Complex — made up of the Bruce, Kah Mountain, and Sullivan fires — and the 1,576-acre Ridge Fire, both of which are 0% contained.

Elsewhere in western Montana, the Colt Fire 12 miles northwest of Seeley Lake has burned 7,179 acres and is 23% contained, and the Bowles Creek Fire 3 miles southwest of Skalkaho Pass has grown to 3,267 acres and is 3% contained as of Aug. 4. The East Fork Fire in the Kootenai National Forest has burned 771 acres and is 0% contained. 

On Saturday, Aug. 5, Flathead, Lincoln, and Sanders counties will join Lake County and the Flathead Indian Reservation in putting stage 2 fire restrictionsinto effect, which prohibit building or maintaining a campfire, smoking outside of a vehicle or building, using internal combustion engines during specified hours, and operating motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails. Stage 2 fire restrictions will also apply to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 lands within the four counties, as well as Flathead and Kootenai national forests and Glacier National Park. Fire danger across northwest Montana is rated as “extreme,” meaning that all fuel types burn easily and have the potential to grow quickly into larger fires. 

The National Weather Service reports that temperatures 10-20 degrees cooler and increased precipitation will move into western Montana on Friday, Aug. 4, and continue through the weekend, with a 5-10% chance of “excessive rainfall” that could lead to flooding, especially on burn scars. 

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

Viewshed 🌄

Swimmers at Salish Point Park in Polson go for an evening dip in Flathead Lake on Aug. 2. Lower-than-average lake levels — the lake is currently 2 feet below full pool —  have been a source of consternation for landowners and boaters on the American West’s largest freshwater lake.

The effects of northwestern Montana’s streamflow-throttling drought also manifested in other ways this week, leading to the growth of multiple lightning-sparked wildfires in the Mission and Flathead valleys. Smoke from the Middle Ridge Fire, estimated at 13,000 acres as of Friday morning, is visible in the photo’s background.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

3 Questions For 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana named a new executive director this week, tapping senior staff attorney Akilah Maya Deernose to lead the advocacy organization. Deernose is the first Black woman and LGBTQ+ person to lead the ACLU of Montana, the organization said. As senior staff attorney, she’s worked as lead counsel in lawsuits challenging Montana’s 2021 transgender birth certificate law as well as Senate Bill 99, a 2023 law preventing trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care. 

Montana Free Press chatted with Deernose this week about her personal history, ambitions for the ACLU and views on the current political moment. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

MTFP:  Tell us a little bit about your history, and how it shapes what you’re doing now.

Deernose: I was born in Vallejo, California, and lived there for the first 9 years of my life, then moved to Tacoma, Washington. I was one of five children on my mom’s side — on my dad’s side, over a dozen. Needless to say, I grew up with just my mom. It was mostly just me, my younger brother and younger sister. My younger brother has Down syndrome and is partially deaf. My sister is bipolar and has a host of other mental illnesses as well as learning disabilities. Growing up, I saw and learned a lot, especially those first nine years. If you are around children with disabilities, especially when you’re growing up, you learn so much from them. Great empathy, great compassion, but you also learn patience, kindness, a willingness to be more understanding. I’m so grateful for those lessons. 

As an undergrad I studied politics, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, really, but I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference. I had a specific intent of becoming an agent of change. I hoped that it would be doing either social justice legal work or policy work, and now I get to do both. 

MTFP: What’s your vision for the ACLU under your leadership?

Deernose: My vision for ACLU is simply to more deeply embed in the community in the spirit of reciprocity. There’s a lot of room for growth in how we connect with potential community partners to partner on protecting civil rights and civil liberties. More people need to know about, and we really need to work on, uprooting systems of oppression — systematic racism, the rule of colonialism — through education and more. If you look at the promises of the Constitution, and the promises it’s made in terms of civil rights and liberties, and you look at how so many people have been unable to exercise those rights, kept from participating meaningfully in civil society, and you look at issues like anti-racism and anti-colonialism — that’s all in alignment with our mission. 

MTFP: How do you wrestle with the ACLU and the legal profession’s reliance on the Constitution and rule of law at a time when it seems that many of this country’s systems of government are strained? And at a time of major scrutiny for the nation’s highest court?

Deernose: Honestly, I think anyone who is doing the work of uprooting systems of inequality, or systems that perpetuate inequality, grapples with these very questions. Especially if you examine where these systems come from. Are they operating as intended to? Are they a failed experiment? These are really important questions to ask yourself. And where I typically land is, I really, really believe in separation of powers, and I think the courts play an unquestionably critical role in ensuring that if one branch of government becomes too powerful, it is not unchecked. Are they perfect? No, and we are seeing that. And is doing the work to uproot systems of inequality from the inside perfect? No, it’s an imperfect solution, but I really am inspired by the work that I see the ACLU, but also other organizations, do to try to work within an imperfect system to create meaningful and lasting change. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — After the Western Governors’ Association put out a call for further exploration into geothermal energy, I’ve kept an eye out for more information on how the renewable energy source is used and where it’s being considered. Enter “Geothermal: Hot or Not,” a helpful story and infographic by High Country News.

Alex — With a third criminal indictment against former President Donald Trump dropping this week, and a fourth expected in Georgia any day now, keeping tabs on the legal situation surrounding the 2024 Republican frontrunner for president is getting a tad overwhelming. To make it easier, I’ve been following Politico’s criminal case tracker, complete with links to the pertinent laws the former president is charged with violating.

Arren —  This story from WyoFile about a Lander school librarian who left his position because of “what he described as a climate of discrimination against LGBTQ+ students and the censorship of educators” has a lot that might sound familiar to Montanans in the midst of our state’s own library culture wars. 

Bowman — I couldn’t put down Kylie Mohr’s gripping story in High Country News about two hikers who narrowly escaped being caught in a wildfire last year. The story serves as a timely reminder that understanding fire risk is an essential part of adventure planning, especially as climate change creates hotter, drier conditions.

Mara —  A new study finds that nursing homes that accepted Paycheck Protection Program loans during the pandemic saw increased staffing hours, a metric that is, perhaps unsurprisingly, associated with better patient outcomes. The 19th* News has that story for anyone who’s curious about how America cares for some of its eldery and most medically vulnerable patients.  

Eric — Remember the Tesla-in-Ekalaka saga we wrote about last week? EV-vehicle-focused news site Electrek published an independently reported story on the adventure, with some additional details that might be of interest if electric vehicle geekiness is your thing.

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