The location of homes in Lewis and Clark County will no longer dictate fire suppression tactics or the placement of fire lines, under a first-of-its-kind resolution signed by county commissioners.
Put another way, county-level firefighters who conduct initial attack – many of them volunteers – will be reminded of this: They have no obligation to protect a home from a wildfire in the urban interface.
“A lot of crews think they have to protect homes, and we’re trying to make it clear they’re just sticks and bricks,” said Sonny Stiger, who helped write the resolution. “This lets our firefighters know they’re not obligated to put their lives on the line to save homes.”
Stiger, a retired fire and fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service and a board member with FireSafe Montana, said building defensible space around homes in the urban interface is the sole responsibility of property owners who choose to live there.
Stiger said the new resolution makes it clear that homeowners should not expect firefighters to put their lives at risk to defend property.
“We can save a lot of homes going back in after the fire front passes, or in the case of the Yarnell Hill fire, not going in at all,” Stiger said, referring to the Arizona blaze that killed 19 firefighters in June. “It’s time we stepped up at the county level to deal with this, and to let (firefighters) know they’re not obligated to protect homes.”
In signing the resolution last month, Lewis and Clark County commissioners also directed local fire crews to receive training in basic wildfire behavior.
Stiger will teach the inaugural class to volunteer fire crews in Wolf Creek, Craig and Dearborn. The Fire Services Training School has lined up additional classes in Kalispell, Stevensville and Willow Creek.
While many volunteer firefighters are versed in working structure fires, Stiger said, they often lack basic knowledge of wildlfire behavior, placing them at risk during incidents in the urban interface.
“Our volunteer fire departments don’t get that basic, practical fire behavior training like the other agencies have,” Stiger said. “I’m going to teach basic, practical fire behavior – the indicators every firefighter should be able to recognize.”
While on the road, Stiger plans to meet with county commissions across the state and ask them to consider signing a similar resolution to that signed in Lewis and Clark County.
His timing in western Montana may be good. Fire scientists and policymakers from several counties gathered at the University of Montana earlier this month to begin similar talks, and to find ways to tackle fire risks in the wildland-urban interface.
Does the state need to regulate private landowners who live in the interface? Should insurance companies be called upon to help mitigate the risks? Should climate change be considered on topics of forest health?
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“Fire is something that affects us all,” James Burchfield, dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation, said at the last meeting. “And how is it that we’re going to collectively deal with that?”
Stiger, along with a growing number of experts in Montana – including many of those who attended the meeting at UM – would like to see the state look to the south and west, where Colorado and California are dealing with similar issues on a larger scale.
A recent report by the Denver Post found that 100,000 Coloradoans have moved into the “red zone,” or areas prime for fire after a century of suppression. Since 2000, more than 1,760 homes in Colorado have been destroyed by wildfire.
Stiger said more people are moving into Montana’s own red zone – an indication of sprawl and a growing population. The problems here will only get worse unless something is done now to correct it, or head it off.
“I think Colorado is coming up with some good ideas, and California already has those state regulations,” Stiger said. “If you mention that in Montana, people get glassed over and that’s that. We haven’t reached the limit yet, but we’re on the heels of Colorado when it comes to the problem.”
Others have expressed similar concerns, including Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who said that while millions of dollars have been spent preserving open space around the fringes of Missoula, the city remains ill prepared to deal with a large-scale fire on its urban fringe.
Strohmaier is urging the city to “plan to make a plan” to address the oversight, saying last summer’s Lolo Creek Complex fire shows there’s little time to waste. That fire burned five homes in a single afternoon and threatened the community of Lolo for nearly a week.
“The reality is – and ironically – we have no fire management plan,” Strohmaier said. “We don’t have the internal expertise to develop a plan. We don’t have the annual appropriated resources to make that plan come to be.”
Strohmaier, who also attended the recent meeting at UM, said Missoula isn’t the only city lacking the expertise and funding to develop a fire management plan – one that consists of a firefighting strategy, the use of fire as a management tool, and a post-fire rehabilitation plan.
“There are resource issues, both ecological and cultural, that need to be identified and taken into account when we’re talking about fire management,” he said. “These open space and conservation lands butt up against people’s backyards and neighborhoods. The work we need to do has a direct bearing on public safety.”
Jennifer LaManna, a fire ecologist with FireSafe Montana, said the organization helped spearhead the resolution in Lewis and Clark County. And with active councils in Broadway, Jefferson, Park, Lincoln and Gallatin counties, she said, the effort to raise awareness among firefighters and safety will continue.
“It’s a certain mindset that goes on with firefighters,” said LaManna. “To stand down and watch something burn is not part of what they want to do. They’re there to save things. There’s a big mind shift that’s going to have to happen. This (resolution) is a big first step.”