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 landmore 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.
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 boardthat'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 endeavorand 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 countiesincluding Missouladon'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."