Pushing boundaries

As Missoula grows, fire risks intensify

| July 25, 2013

Last month, 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died trying to stop a wildfire from escaping the forest and swallowing a small subdivision in a suburb outside of Prescott, Ariz. The tragic incident put an increased focus on not only firefighting strategy, but also the preventative measures taken to manage where homes are built and how the surrounding area is protected.

The area is known as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, and Missoula County is home to 350 square miles of potentially developable WUI land—more than any other county in Montana. One group says that, unless changes are made with how that land is managed, the county could someday face some of the most expensive wildfires in the state.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Crews work to contain the Stimson fire near Bonner earlier this week.

The Montana Legislature commissioned Headwaters Economics, based in Bozeman, to study future wildfire risk and state costs associated with fighting blazes. The group found that federal and state agencies are trying to be proactive by taking preventive measures, and are also picking up the majority of the tab for firefighting costs, but that little is being done at the local level. That setup poses a problem as federal budgets shrink and local development increases.

"The feds are cutting down how much they pay for funding across the board—that's also happening with fire," says Headwaters economist Chris Mehl. "I do believe on the horizon many local leaders are going to have more people [in the WUI] but less federal funding than ever before, so they're going to have to pick up the slack."

A century of fire suppression, a warming climate and longer and dryer summers have created dense, fuel-choked forests that make firefighting a difficult and expensive endeavor—and those circumstances don't appear to be changing. In total, Montana's 2012 fire season cost $113.5 million, with the state itself paying more than $50 million.

According to Headwaters' research, a third of firefighting costs go into protecting WUI homes. After 2007's particularly harsh fire season, Montana law required counties to create community wildfire protection plans. That directive, in part, required each county to have a WUI defined by 2012.

But the intentionally broad language allowed each county to define the area differently. By the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation's own admission, "WUI delineation resulted in multiple representations that are inconsistent at the state level."

Part of the problem is how Montana's land is divided. Properties inside the WUI are typically comprised of private, municipal, state and federal lands. The National Forest Service, DNRC, county, city and rural fire departments all work collaboratively when a fire breaks out, but otherwise each is responsible for managing its own section.

County commissioners wield the most influence at the local level, but most counties—including Missoula—don't set zoning requirements in the WUI. Instead, commissioners offer property owners guidance on how to protect their property. The property owners often don't want any more than those suggestions. For instance, when the Missoula Board of County Commissioners moved to implement firewise zoning in the Double Arrow Ranch south of Seeley Lake, residents fiercely opposed the plan.

"We knew that there was a certain fire risk involved with living in the woods," wrote Double Arrow homeowners William and Roberta Cruce in a July 7 letter to the commissioners, "and we gladly accepted that rather than being forced to live within a city and having all the zoning requirements that goes with it."

Byron Bonney, a forester with Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development, a nonprofit that works in both Ravalli and Missoula counties to prepare landowners for fire, cautions against such an accepting attitude. He says residents need to understand that it's not a question of if a fire happens, but when.

"Fire's been here a lot longer than any of us and it's always going to be here," he says. "This isn't natural. We've excluded fire and [some landowners] have a huge problem with too many trees per acre."

Officials say homeowners tend to ignore the threat of wildfires because they don't feel the costs until after the damage is done to their property. Insurance companies in Montana don't charge higher premiums in WUI areas, nor do they require any fire prevention efforts. In some parts of the West, the accountability is shifting. Insurance companies now require some Colorado homeowners to use firewise techniques around their homes, and California's Department of Forestry charges an annual $150-per-structure fee to those living in the WUI.

For Missoula, the emphasis remains on purely preventative measures, working with developers and educating landowners so that property can be protected in the event of a fire. Chris Lounsbury, director of the Missoula County Office of Emergency Management, says that right now the onus is entirely on the residents to take advantage of the resources.

"There's funding available to help do that," he says. "Each community has its own priorities, but in the WUI the priority needs to be defensible space."


Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Matthew is absolutely right that mid-elevation lodgepole forests are naturally "dog-hair" thick and are adapted to burn with their thin bark and serotinous cones. Lower-elevation ponderosa pines are adapted to frequent low-intensity forest fires that clear out douglas fir and brush, creating park-like settings. However, it is good practice for homeowners to thin the forests and clear brush near their homes and to trim lower limbs on the remaining trees.
I believe that we can "have it all": some responsible logging on private lands and national forests, vast wilderness areas that are untouched, and thinning near towns and homes for fuel reduction/public safety. The Blackfoot Challenge is a good example of a project where ranchers and other conservationists sat down together to discuss rationally ways to protect ranching lifestyles, the upper Blackfoot River, grizzly bears and other wildlife and came up with a plan that worked.

Posted by Kate on 08/05/2013 at 11:46 AM

Yeah, well those open park-like stands also comprise the majority of the WUI that folks have chosen to build their homes in.

Posted by Andy Mason on 07/27/2013 at 1:23 PM

I am very glad that you did "split those hairs" in your comment, Matthew. The history of finding any reason under the sun to cut trees continues to the present. Now the tree fellers use rhetoric like "healthy forests" or "preventive clearing" around homes to continue road building and deforestation.

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Posted by Jean on 07/25/2013 at 1:10 PM

I don't want to split hairs here, but some of the words used in this article may help promote public misunderstanding of wildfires.

For example, the articles opens with the tragic loss of 19 Hotshots who were fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, saying they died trying to "stop a wildfire from escaping the forest."

However, according to the official website for the Yarnell Hill Fire http://www.inciweb.org/incident/3461/ the fire burned almost exclusively in chaparral brush and grass, not in a "forest." Here's a satellite image from the Yarnell Hill Fire, which clearly shows the lack of trees or a "forest" in the entire area: http://ncfp.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/ya…. This was a similar situation (ie fire burning in brush and grass) to other tragic fires, such as Mann Gulch and Storm King Mountain, which also took the lives of too many young firefighters. This is an important fact to keep in mind, especially as some people use every wildfire season as an excuse to call for more logging of our public forests.

The article also mentions that past fire supression and climate change have created "Dense, fuel-choked forests." Again, that's a misleading statement, as a majority of Montana's forests (think: higher elevation lodgepole, or spruce-fir forests) are naturally "dense" and I suppose "fuel-choked" (bad word choice to describe a forest ecosystem in my view) and have been for thousands and thousands of years.

Sure, many of the lower-elevation, somewhat open ponderosa pine forests that were typical of the foothills around Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley are gone...Those great trees and forests were quickly cut down in Montana even before the start of the 20th century to build and fuel places like the copper mines in Butte. However, those "open, park-like" stands of ponderosa pines never constituted the majority of the forest ecosystems throughout the west, as they really only characterized less than 10% of the west's entire forest-base at any one time. So, it's a mistake to look at all our forests in Montana, or elsewhere in the west, and think that any forest ecosystem with "dense" vegetation is somehow "out of whack" or not natural. Thank you.

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Posted by Matthew Koehler on 07/25/2013 at 7:42 AM
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