Policymakers, fire scientists explore wildland-urban interface issues at UM

2013-12-12T06:30:00Z 2014-04-22T18:00:36Z Policymakers, fire scientists explore wildland-urban interface issues at UM missoulian.com

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.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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(5) Comments

  1. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - December 12, 2013 2:24 pm
    I agree.
  2. Matthew Koehler
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    Matthew Koehler - December 12, 2013 2:11 pm
    Sure, I'm fine using the $175,000 figure too. Still, that's a complete bargain for Plum Creek timber company, even if we are just looking at the $12.5 million cost of the Lolo Creek Fire, which burned more Plum Creek Timber Co land than any other ownership. Also, remember, last summer the fire out by Superior burned a lot of Plum Creek Timber Co land too. And in year's past, big fires like Jocko Lakes, Blackcat, Chippy, etc burned Plum Creek Timber Co land. The point I was making was that Plum Creek Timber Co doesn't even come close to covering the public taxpayer costs of fighting wildfires on their private land.
  3. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - December 12, 2013 12:12 pm
    A little misleading Matthew to only use the 7,000 acres at .25 cents and acre. How about 900,000 times .25 equals $175,000. Still not enough to cover their portion of the fire costs. But know very well whether their property burns or not the state gets that $175,000.
  4. Matthew Koehler
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    Matthew Koehler - December 12, 2013 10:17 am
    Since the timber industry's Pat Connell (R-Hamilton) is going to blame the Lolo Creek Complex fire on the US Forest Service and their suppression efforts the public should at least consider these facts:

    The 10,902 acre Lolo Creek Complex wildfire had a total suppression cost of $12.5 million.

    Only 18% of the acres burned were owned and managed by the US Forest Service.

    82% of the total acres burned were owned and managed by Plum Creek Timber Co, the State of Montana or private individuals. Plum Creek Timber Co land accounted for the majority of the acres burned in this fire.

    The fire spread rapidly over these logged and roaded Plum Creek Timber Co lands when winds approached 50 miles per hour, temps were in the mid-90s and humidity was in the teens. Yet Pat Connell wants to blame this on the Forest Service or federal forest policy?

    It's also worth pointing out that Plum Creek Timber Company pays an annual firefighting fee assessment of about 25 cents an acre to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that works like insurance on all its approximately 900,000 acres of property in the state.

    Since nearly 7,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co land burned in the Lolo Creek Complex fire at 25 cents an acre that comes to $1,750, out of a $12.5 million acre fire, which burned mainly on Plum Creek Timber Co land.
  5. Matthew Koehler
    Report Abuse
    Matthew Koehler - December 12, 2013 10:06 am
    Hello: It must be pointed out that Montana State Forester Bob Harrington is mistaken to only single out the insurance industry in regards to Colorado Gov John Hickenlooper's "Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force." (See: http://tinyurl.com/k5keos5)

    While the insurance industry is concerned about intrusions into companies' underwriting process, the real opposition to the recommendations from the Colorado Task Force came from developers and the real estate industry. For proof of that, please see this September article from the Denver Post.

    CO Task Force: Homeowners should pay to live in burn zones; developers/real estate industry oppose parts of plan

    http://forestpolicypub.com/2013/10/02/co-task-force-homeowners-should-pay-to-live-in-burn-zones-developersreal-estate-industry-oppose-parts-of-plan/

    Gov. John Hickenlooper’s wildfire team unveiled an overhaul of how Colorado deals with the growing problem of people building houses in forests prone to burn, shifting more of the responsibility to homeowners.

    The overhaul recommends that lawmakers charge fees on homes built in woods, rate the wildfire risk of the 556,000 houses already built in burn zones on a 1-10 scale and inform insurers, and establish a state building code for use of fire-resistant materials and defensible space.

    Sellers of homes would have to disclose wildfire risks, just as they must disclose flood risks. And state health officials would adjust air-quality permit rules to give greater flexibility for conducting controlled burns in overly dense forests to reduce the risk of ruinous superfires….

    Protecting homes from wildfires is increasingly costly, with the state’s share going up from around $10 million a year to $48 million in 2012 and $54 million this year – some of which may be reimbursed by the federal government.

    Yet construction in the mountains and foothills is accelerating. A Colorado State University study found development will cover 2.1 million acres in wildfire-prone areas by 2030, up from about 1 million today.

    But parts of the plan face opposition from developers and the real estate industry.

    “When you put a number 10 on a house, it can change the game. In a lot of cases, it could make property un-sellable,” said Colorado Association of Home Builders chief Amie Mayhew, a task force member.

    Under the risk ratings recommendation, a home classified as high-risk would go through a “mitigation audit” to specify how to protect it against wildfire. Homeowners who do so could have their risk ratings reduced, said Barbara Kelley, director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, who ran the task force.”Homeowners in the wildland-urban interface should take on more of the responsibility” for protecting against wildfire, Kelley said.

    Developers and the real estate industry also oppose a state building code unless implementation and enforcement is left up to local authorities.

    And the Colorado Association of Realtors – not represented on the task force – rejects requiring disclosure of wildfire risks before home sales, vice president Rachel Nance said. House contracts could simply include a website address where buyers could conduct their own research into risks, she said.

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