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Fire Tower shingles

The shingles that were recently replaced on the Fire Tower are in violation of Helena's fire ordinance.

The city of Helena installed shingles on the iconic Fire Tower that violate the city’s own fire ordinance, which the city is currently defending in court.

The tower, one of Helena’s most recognizable landmarks, underwent a volunteer-driven overhaul in 2010 and 2011. But that rehabilitation included installation of wooden roofing shingles, which are forbidden in Helena when more than half of a roof is being replaced.

The use of unauthorized shingles was an oversight that will be quickly corrected, City Manager Ron Alles said.

“We hold ourselves at last to the same standard as we hold everyone else,” he said Monday. “We’re going to fix it and it is going to be done ASAP.”

The situation was brought to the attention of the city — and of the judge overseeing the lawsuit over the ordinance — by Scott and Megan Svee, who installed wooden shingles on the roof of their home and then got sued by the city in 2011.

In 2008, the city created a citywide wildland-urban interface district and prohibited, among other things, use of exposed wooden roofing materials.

The Svees have argued in court that only the state can create such fire codes and that the city does not have the authority to enact a local fire ordinance through the zoning process.

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The Svees let District Judge Kathy Seeley know about the Fire Tower snafu in a court filing March 21.

Alles said a volunteer group of firefighters, the Helena Fire Benefit Association, essentially adopted the Fire Tower and led its much-needed repairs.

The city should have recognized at the time that the shingles were not in compliance, but did not, Alles said. But given the new information, the city will hold itself to the same standards — or greater — than it holds everyone else to, he said.

“Frankly I’m glad Mr. Svee pointed it out to us because we’re going to fix it,” he said. “I hope Mr. Svee does the same thing.”

The city Parks and Recreation Department will replace the roof, which measures about 10 feet by 10 feet, Alles said.

He defended the city ordinance, noting the danger that a wildfire in the South Hills would present, particularly if embers landed on wood-shingled roofs.

“We think it’s important that we be able to regulate, through zoning, the placement of wood shingles or not, within the city of Helena and within that district,” Alles said.

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