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Robert Dillon Tree Service manages a prescribed burn on a Grant Creek homeowner's property in April 2015. Dillon and his crew burned out underbrush and grass on several acres of the property, where they had limbed up the trees in previous years as a wildfire preventive measure.

It’s no surprise to anyone that Missoula County is at risk for wildfires.

Two wildfires have broken out in the upper Grant Creek area in the last two years. The fire in August forced the evacuation of 25 homes, though only one fifth-wheeler used as a residence was destroyed.

Towns in Missoula County including Missoula, Lolo, Seeley Lake, Clinton and Frenchtown are among the many in the West that are in the wildland-urban interface, a term that describes cities and residences that abut forest and open lands. 

Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based research and policy group, decided something should be done to foster lower risk development in WUI communities, said Kimi Barrett, a research and policy analyst for Headwaters that’s leading the wildlife program’s work.

After a several-year process that included the involvement of the U.S. Forest Service and several private partners, as well as a test case in Summit County, Colorado, they awarded five western communities Community Planning Assistance grants, one of which went to Missoula County.

The grants will look beyond homeowner education, Barrett said, to answer the program’s burning question: “How do you plan a community to be better prepared for fires?”

The first need for Missoula County was to have an idea of what wildfire risk looked like from area to area, in order to lay out a development plan built to expand away from high-risk areas.

The county doesn’t have that sort of comprehensive data, so Headwaters hired Anchor Point, a fire management group from Boulder, Colorado, to build one.

Barrett wouldn’t say how much the map cost, and didn’t want to reveal the private partners that helped fund the grant, but said they’re putting over $100,000 in services into each community.

Anchor Point co-founder Chris White said depending on the size and complexity of the area they study, their services can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000. 

White said they made three trips to Missoula and had numerous video conference calls with forest specialists to analyze vegetation, weather, hills, roads and home density, to name just a few of the aspects that go into their risk analysis. 

"You've got absolutely unburnable stuff in the university and downtown within a half-mile of a mixed conifer forest," he said. "We're talking about structure vulnerability."

Pat O’Herren, Missoula Community and Planning Services director, said they don’t even know how much the grant is for, but do know it’s the kind of work that would be out of their reach otherwise.

“Missoula County could not have afforded this,” O’Herren said.

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The risk map shows fire hazards, fuels, conditions on the ground and historic fire data, and gives areas ratings from low, medium to high. It offers a sort of “digital model of fire behavior,” O’Herren said.

So, remember the fires in Grant Creek?

O’Herren said that’s an example of a fire that could have been prevented with the use of this map by allowing local agencies and homeowners to do a more thorough job of identifying hazards and mitigating risk near homes before fire season starts.

“Hopefully it’s a very minor fire season (next year) so we can test it,” he said.

Adriane Beck, Office of Emergency Management director, said the map will also be used to update other county plans, the pre-disaster mitigation and community wildfire protection plans.

It will also be available on the county’s website, according to O’Herren, and made available to local fire departments and Forest Service agencies to reach out to homeowners who are in high-risk areas.

“This data now gives us a visual to educate the public on what their risk is based on where they live,” Beck said. “If you live on a slope in general that contributes to risk. And people can kind of understand that, but this offers a graphic description.”

The current community wildfire protection plan is based on data that’s several years old, Beck said, and the new risk map will be unlike any resource the county’s had before on wildfire protection.

Before, she said, someone with “boots-on-the-ground knowledge” would survey land on a site-by-site basis.  

With this map, they’ll be able to pull up the area on the computer and see details on everything a surveyor would see in person.

“It allows the picture of a county as a whole,” she said. “We always need to be pushing the envelope of using the best science when it’s available.”

Barrett said Headwaters gave out four other grants this year to counties in New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Texas. The next round will see two more Montana counties, Lewis and Clark and Park, receive the community planning assistance funds.

Headwaters is the only group Barrett knows of that spends this much time and effort on community planning as a solution to wildfire risk. They brought the Forest Service on board as a matching partner in 2014, forcing them to find private donors as well.

After the Summit County test case, Headwaters brought their findings to the Forest Service to expand service, resulting in the 10 grants given out this year and next.

They’ll continue working with Missoula County until 2017, she said, when the county and facilitating departments will take over the plan’s direction.

Missoula’s collaborative nature has impressed Barrett, with several agencies, including the Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation, the Bureau of Land Management, Lolo National Forest, the University of Montana and Salish/Kootenai members, working together on the county’s unique challenges.

“Where structures are starting to infringe on the wild environment is a concern for Missoula,” she said. “How that development occurs can be informed by the tools and services we provide.”

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