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John Lewis, Democratic candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, listens Tuesday, April 22, 2014, while fire officials describe the erratic behavior of the Lolo Creek Complex fires last August.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

LOLO – Lessons from last summer’s Lolo Creek Complex fires will be put to use for residents along the unburned stretches of U.S. Highway 12 this summer.

“I don’t know the exact cost-benefit analysis, but on the houses where people had done fire mitigation work, we didn’t have to do anything,” Missoula Rural Fire Deputy Marshal Chris Newman said during a tour of the area Tuesday. “At another house that had four or five cords of wood stacked right by the wall, when the embers started landing you could see them start smoking. At one place, we had to position a brush truck, a water tender, a type 1 engine and eight guys – and we needed 30 or 40. Just down the road at some prepped places, we had one type 6 engine and two guys patrolling.”

The Lolo Creek Complex destroyed five homes and four other buildings on its first-day rampage. But it was two days later when a wind shift sent sparks swirling over the ridgetops and back into the highway corridor that urban firefighters faced their greatest challenge. Houses otherwise far from the main fire needed constant monitoring as embers floated onto roof shingles, under decks and into tall grass.

“It was phenomenal – the difference places that were treated made to our ability to get in and defend those homes,” Newman said. “Look at that compared to the ones where it was an inferno and there was no way you could put anyone in there.”

Newman and Missoula Rural Fire Marshal Bill Colwell were showing the results to Democratic U.S. House of Representatives candidate John Lewis on a tour of the burn area. Lewis asked for the visit to learn more about how congressional efforts to change firefighting funding might affect communities.

Colwell said his department has made strategic use of a grant program that pays half the cost of sending work teams to residences in the wildland urban interface for hazard reduction. Property owners typically pay about $150 a day for a crew of four to clear brush, remove hazardous trees and otherwise “firewise” ground around homes, buildings and other valuable features.

Missoula Rural Fire uses the money to help its volunteer firefighters – many of whom are college students or applicants for staff fire jobs – earn a living while staying close to their protection areas. The volunteers often bunk at the rural fire station while on duty, which makes it hard to find paying work and maintain their availability.

“I think we’ll be starting the program around the second week of June,” Colwell said. “We’ll have eight people working this summer.”

Lewis said the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior have been spending $3.5 billion a year fighting fires lately, which is about three times the average fire expense in the 1990s. He supported legislation now before Congress to pay for forest fires the same way the government provides disaster assistance for hurricanes and tornadoes.

“Eight times since 2000, the Forest Service firefighting budget has run out and it’s been forced to dip into funds meant for fire prevention,” Lewis said. “When Congress goes from crisis to crisis, it’s the first responders who take the biggest cuts. The Lolo Complex could have been a lot worse without the prevention efforts that minimized risk here.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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