SEELEY LAKE — Five hundred trees gone, a summer of maintenance to go.
That’s the score Natalie and Jeff Wisehart see on their Double Arrow Ranch property in the foothills of the Swan Mountains as they brace for the fire next time. Last August, they evacuated their home of 18 years when the Rice Ridge fire burned 160,000 acres around Seeley Lake.
Such heavy-duty yardwork may become the norm for thousands of property owners across Montana as fire seasons grow more dangerous. A new land-use study found one of every eight new homes built in the state during the last quarter-century occupied high-risk wildfire areas. Defending those homes from wildfire in 2017 increased firefighting costs by about $25 million, according to the Headwaters Economics report.
“When it comes as close as it did last summer, it gives one pause,” Jeff Wisehart said as he took a break from hauling tree branches to a burn pile. He recalled how when he first moved there, the homeowners committee required an advance inspection of any tree he wanted to cut down. Now it provides grants to help homeowners thin their forests. The Wiseharts have cut at least 500, aiming for a 15-foot spacing between the remaining trunks to prevent ground fires from climbing into the crowns.
Missoula County, which includes Seeley Lake, has one of the state’s highest rates of new-home construction in the wildland-urban interface. Between 1990 and 2016, one of every five houses built was in the interface. And the number of those in high-hazard areas nearly doubled, from 2,337 to 4,571.
Ravalli County figures were even more stark. Of the 15,551 homes built in the same period, 13,597 went into high-hazard locations.
Statewide, about a third of those new homes were vacation or second homes.
Headwaters researcher Kelly Pohl said that presents a challenge to counties charged with protecting those homes. Wildland firefighters must change their tactics when fire perimeters get within a mile of homes, and that adds about $9,000 in suppression costs per house. During the 2017 fire season, almost 3,000 homes fell in that category of extra defense.
“Much of the Bitterroot Valley and parts of the Missoula Valley and Helena Valley light up because those are places where there are wildfire hazards even though people think they might be in an urban area,” Pohl said. “When our firefighters are on the ground battling events, they may not know if a home is a second home or not. They’re putting their lives in danger to protect those homes.”
Lake, Flathead, Granite, Gallatin and Park counties join Missoula, Ravalli and Lewis and Clark to contribute 96 percent of the new homes in high wildfire risk areas. But very few counties have built wildfire considerations into their land-use planning.
The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation wrote development guidelines for construction in the interface in 2009. The Headwaters report highlighted efforts in Lincoln, Missoula and Lewis and Clark counties to adopt community wildfire protection plans.
Lincoln County’s subdivision regulations require that all proposed development projects in unincorporated areas make a fire risk assessment by a county forester before plat review. Lewis and Clark County has a growth policy and subdivision regulations that restrict building on site slopes and cover road access options, utility placement and water supply considerations.
In Missoula County, a combination of building code requirements, long-range planning and subdivision regulations address development in the wildland-urban interface. Its community wildfire prevention plan has made use of new research from the Rocky Mountain Research Center’s fire-science studies to explore ways of reducing hazardous forest fuels without creating unhealthy levels of smoke pollution.
“We’re prioritizing the information we’re getting from the fire lab,” said Pat O’Herron, Missoula County’s chief planning officer. “For existing homes and planning for future homes, things like fire districts and neighborhood groups make residential areas safer. We’re trying to deal with growth as it occurs in rural regions.”
At Double Arrow Ranch, the thick pine and fir forests that provide privacy and quiet have started making way for harder-to-burn open vistas. As they prepared to burn big slash piles on a rainy Friday, the Hartwises hoped their neighbors got the message, too.
“They’ve been pretty good about getting us to clear out the dead trees and brush,” Natalie Hartwise said of the homeowners association. “And our insurance company sent crews up to help. We didn’t like it at first. But we need to do this.”