While the scars left by the Lolo Creek Complex fire have gone from black to white in recent weeks, the memories left by the summer conflagration are still fresh.
On Wednesday, with the fire’s charge through the wildland-urban interface serving as a conversational backdrop, a group of policymakers and fire scientists met at the University of Montana to explore ways of making sure it doesn’t happen again.
Does the state need to regulate private land owners who live in the wildland-urban interface? Should insurance companies be brought to the table? Should climate change become part of the larger conversation on forest health?
“Fire is something that affects us all,” said James Burchfield, dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation. “How is it that we’re going to collectively deal with that?“
Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, said a bill passed during the last legislative session drastically changed the way the state funds the suppression of wildland fires.
The discussions that surrounded that bill, coupled with the Lolo Creek fire, prompted Larsen and the college to form a working group to find solutions to what most agreed is a growing problem.
“I’m curious to see what we can do from a policy standpoint to address this,” Larsen said.
Shaping that policy could prove politically uncomfortable for both parties. To be effective, members of the working group suggested that the conversation must explore private property rights, climate change and allowing increased harvesting of forest products.
“We need to explore creative solutions in the West and how we deal with private property rights in the wildland urban interface,” said Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula. “If we want to make innovative change, we have to start now and we need broad-based solutions.“
Regulating private property within the wildland-urban interface could be similar to regulations governing private land within the 100-year floodplain, some suggested.
But Carl Seielstad, a research professor at UM and a program manager at the National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis, said that identifying and describing the wildland-urban interface for the sake of drafting policy won’t be an easy task.
“If there’s ever any legislation that requires people to behave in certain ways, there’s going to have to be agreed upon definitions and data sets that are substantiated by science and the expertise to support those decisions,” he said.
Montana State Forester Bob Harrington said that insurance companies also must be called upon to engage in the conversation, and to help find solutions.
But that has proven difficult in the past, he said. While a record number of homes have burned in the state in recent years – along with a record number of acres – insurers have been absent from the conversation, just as they have in other states.
Harrington referred to recent destructive fires in Colorado, which drove Gov. John Hickenlooper to create the Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force.
The task force sought to explore insurance policies that promoted forest health and reduced the threat of wildland fires. It looked to incentivize smarter planning to reduce the loss of life and property.
“When the conclusion came out, you see the insurance industry saying ‘Not so fast,’” Harrington said. “The sad fact is, if you want the insurance industry to respond on its own, their losses have to be up there in the top five (categories).“
Harrington said a bill introduced in the Montana Legislature three sessions ago also died in committee when insurance representatives pressed the issue.
Rep. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, put the blame for the Lolo Creek Complex on federal land managers and their slow suppression efforts. He also suggested that insurance companies may not be the answer.
“I have not encountered a single situation of one insurance company going after another landowner’s insurance under a liability suit for failure to be pre-emptive,” he said.
Committee members agreed to meet again in the spring.