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Through the trees about two miles up Grant Creek Road, a stripe of dark red colors the forest, a combination of fire retardant and burned needles from last summer’s Colorado Gulch fire.

“When the fire took off, it was late afternoon and the wind was screaming,” Grant Creek Neighborhood Council member Bert Lindler said. “It was amazing.”

Firefighters evacuated 25 homes. One fifth-wheel trailer that was being used as a residence was destroyed.

But it could have been a lot worse.

Forest Service aircraft happened to be parked at Missoula International Airport when the fire broke out, potentially saving dozens of homes from the fast-moving fire, according to Department of Natural Resources Fire Information Officer Jordan Koppen.

Because in reality, very few people in Grant Creek were prepared for a fire.

Fir tree branches grew onto their decks, where firewood was piled up underneath. Juniper bushes surrounded every other home, a waiting tinderbox of dry needles. Wood shingles covered more than a few roofs in the area.

“I can’t believe I still see wood shake up here,” Koppen said, pointing out a roof from the window of his truck recently. “You’re just asking for it.

“That’s a huge risk.”

Koppen’s spending his spring putting hundreds of miles on that truck, as he patrols his jurisdiction from Butte to Condon to Missoula trying to educate people in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) on the best ways to prevent a wildfire from destroying their homes.

In Grant Creek, the lower third of which is in city limits, homeowner-initiated prevention efforts are lackadaisical at best: the dovetailing efforts of Lindler and Koppen still failing to garner much change.

Koppen’s goal is to fill in a map that he pulled up on his smartphone.

On the map are hundreds of little blank circles, representing Grant Creek homes. In the place of six circles are a couple of red triangles and orange or blue dots.

Those are the only homes Koppen’s been able to survey this year for wildfire hazards. The red triangles (which represent the highest-risk homes) he marked from the roadside, without touring the yard.

The higher the risk, the lower the likelihood that firefighters will spend any time trying to save that home if a wildfire is bearing down.

“If your neighbor’s house is way more prepared than yours, we might go protect theirs first,” he said.

***

This home-by-home assessment, which provides crucial information to fire crews in the heat of the fight, has never been done in Grant Creek before.

Recently, Koppen assessed a home in the Colorado Gulch neighborhood, about three miles up the drainage, where the 2016 fire and a 2014 fire burned.

Karissma Rufe and her 2-year-old son Joe walked Koppen around the outside of the house, where he immediately began pointing out all they were doing right (most of it) and wrong.

The good:

  • gravel laid around the house instead of bark chips,
  • most of the trees near the home limbed,
  • nothing burnable stashed under the porch, 
  • and very few tree limbs or bushes pushed up against the house or deck

The bad:

  • A smaller fir tree sat “uncomfortably close” to the house. Koppen recommended cutting it down, or at least chopping off lower limbs.
  • A large juniper bush sat right against a wooden railing that connected to the house. Really, Koppen recommended uprooting any and all juniper bushes, even those farther from the house.
  • Some wooden porch furniture, which didn’t worry Koppen too much, but he said: “I’d throw these off first if there was a fire coming.”

Most of Koppen’s firsthand knowledge of the wildland-urban interface came from the Roaring Lion Fire in Hamilton last summer that destroyed 16 homes.

He said 14 of those burned down from low-intensity fire, which wouldn’t have bothered a well-prepared home, but caught piles of pine needles or firewood and soon engulfed whole homes.

If that sort of blaze got into a neighborhood as comparatively tightly packed as Grant Creek, it will force fire crews to make tough decisions on which homes to try and save.

And there will never be enough firefighters to save every home, Koppen said.

But as much as Koppen does try and spread the word about fire hazard mitigation, he still drives up through Seeley Lake and Grant Creek and sees piles of wood or untrimmed trees he stopped to talk to homeowners about weeks ago.

“It is a little frustrating when I see they haven't done anything yet,” Koppen said. “There’s only so much I can do.

“It’s hard in Montana to force people to do something.”

***

For most rural Montanans, hazard mitigation is simply a good idea, but not legally required. And none of the many Grant Creek homeowners' associations (HOAs) require fire mitigation tactics, Lindler said, making Koppen more of a “persuader,” not an enforcer.

But there have been successful fire mitigation tactics in the Grant Creek drainage, even by HOAs.

About 400 acres of thinned Lolo National Forest land is adjacent to 750 thinned National Wildlife Federation and 10 acres of homeowners' assocation lands, which run into Grant Creek backyards.

The forests were thinned from about 2005 to 2009, Lindler, who’s also a volunteer NWF caretaker, said.

They should be rethinned every decade or so, though this area may have to wait closer to 20 years.

“People still need to wake up,” Koppen said. “They have a false sense of security when we do these fuel reductions.”

On a short drive up Grant Creek Road, thick, dense undergrowth came right up to the road’s edge, gathering around power lines (failures of which caused the last two fires in Grant Creek) and fenced yards.

Farther up, the road narrowed for a small bridge, barely wide enough for Koppen’s pickup.

“We’re not coming in here, is what that means,” he said, fire crews writing off the one-road-in, one-road-out canyon.

“When the fire is below you, and you have no vehicle to go out the top, that’s a bad situation,” Lindler added.

“The beauty of living in Grant Creek is we have some open spaces, some forests, some wildlife,” Lindler said. “But all the residents need to work for when a fire comes. And a fire is going to come.”

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