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A firefighter battles a blaze near Frenchtown in 2007. A new report says Montana’s wildland firefighting costs could double if forest fringes continue to be filled with houses.

If Montana’s forest fringes continue filling with houses, wildland firefighting costs could double, according to a report by the Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics.

“Protecting homes is a major cost and safety issue in fighting fire,” said Headwaters author Chris Mehl. “But the real question is personal responsibility: Who pays for that? Right now, the federal government – the Forest Service, BLM or FEMA – pays for a disproportionate share of the cost of fighting fires and cleaning up afterward. States and municipalities pay a small share of the cost.

“The challenge is, if we keep building these homes in the wildland-urban interface, who should bear the cost? Will localities say we’re not willing to bear the cost and you landowners must bear more? We need to look at land-use planning.”

The report crunched wildland firefighting costs throughout the West in the years 2006 and 2007. In Montana, Headwaters reported the 2006 fire season burned 645,640 acres, of which 83,727 acres had defendable structures within one mile of the flames.

It estimated the firefighting costs related to homes that year at

$55.6 million, of which Montana state and local agencies paid at least $13.9 million.

Projecting out to 2025, Headwaters assumed another 35,000 residential acres would be at risk in a fire season as bad as 2006. That meant costs related to protecting homes would climb to $78.9 million, in 2006 dollars.

Wildland firefighting strategy prioritizes human safety and structure protection above all other goals. That often means fire crews will deploy equipment and personnel to guard backcountry homes, even though the flame front may be far away.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever grow again like we did in ’03 and ’04, when the West was suddenly the ‘Third Coast’ for a while,” Mehl said. “But housing sales are up significantly. Will they approach the bubble levels again? I don’t know. But I think we are going to see growth again, in and around the woods. It’s beautiful. There’s low crime. The taxes are lower than California. The schools are good, and with telecommunications, you can live anywhere. What’s that going to mean for the taxpayer?”

Mehl said Headwaters isn’t proposing any specific response, although the report notes that cluster development is much easier and less expensive to protect from fire than widely spaced ranchettes.

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Restricting house construction in the wildland-urban interface might be a good idea, report critic Andy Stahl said, but Headwaters is using the wrong measuring stick to make its point.

“It looks like Headwaters is trying to wag the dog with the tail,” said Stahl, who leads Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Ore. “It’s trying to get Montana and other land-use jurisdictions to make housing permitting decisions on the basis of Forest Service firefighting costs, with the thought that somehow, if only Montana could control suburban sprawl, the Forest Service would spend less money on firefighting. There’s no reason to think so.”

Forest Service firefighting costs have little to do with home protection, Stahl said. He pointed to the difference in firefighting expenses for Texas and California, which have comparable numbers of homes in the wildland-urban interface. Texas pays considerably less, he said.

“And that’s because Texas has almost no federal or public land,” Stahl said. “So who pays for firefighting in Texas? State and local jurisdictions. Costs are not exploding in Texas, and the reason is Texas can’t print money.”

Places like California and Montana that have lots of federal land administered by the Forest Service have much higher wildland firefighting bills, he said. That’s also true compared with other federal agencies, such as the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. In the past decade, Forest Service fire costs have gone from twice as expensive as Interior Department costs, to 3.5 times higher, Stahl said.

“Not even the insurance industry thinks the threat of wildfire is worth placing additional premium on the wildland-urban interface,” Stahl said. “We don’t lose very many homes on the WUI from wildfire. The home loss from careless smoking dwarfs by 10 times the loss from wildland fire.”

Mehl countered that the Headwaters study combines the costs of all state and federal agencies involved in the fires it analyzed.

He agreed the Forest Service’s firefighting costs appear out of step with other agencies, but added that missed the larger point: Wildfire may soon join hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes in the natural disaster club that does everyday economic damage to the country.

He also disputed Stahl’s points about the insurance industry, saying several states have seen attempts to impose surcharges or increased premiums for forest-fringe homes. Some of those have failed, he said, because no one had accurate maps showing where homes might be in danger.

“This is about the future,” Mehl said. “We know what the costs are today. The question is, do we want to control their growth in the future? We’re going to have more homes in the WUI. Who’s going to pay for that? These are discussions people should start having.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.