Missoula officials: Wildfire readiness requires a steady, coordinated effort

In 1994, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier served as a fire station manager in Oregon, home of several firefighters who died at the South Canyon fire in Glennwood Springs, Colorado.

Nine of them were hotshots from Oregon, and as Strohmaier climbed the hill to the fatality site, he saw 14 small steel spikes with 14 small brass tags delineating where the firefighters had taken their last breath.

Nearby, green plant shoots began growing beside the tags a month after the incident.

“The stark image of death and symbolism of death, next to the reality of life, really raised the question for me and still does to this day,” Strohmaier said. “What risks will we be willing to take to suppress fire on landscapes that have burned from time immemorial?”

At a City Club Missoula meeting on Monday, the Missoula Ranger District of the Lolo National Forest, the state of Montana and Missoula County announced their leadership in a project called Wildfire Adapted Missoula, or WAM.

The project focuses on working with multiple partners to expand prescribed fires, thinning to reduce fire fuel and widespread planting. It also looks to improve first responder safety and community awareness and education on wildfires.

A map displayed at the meeting showed the many landowners within the district’s purview of 520,000 acres, with a majority of it owned privately. Much of it is at high risk of burning as well, Missoula District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek said.

“This is not fire-proofing and this isn’t necessarily going to reduce occurence,” Hensiek said. “But we’re really interested in reducing some of that intensity and that transmission as (fire) moves through the landscape down into the edges of communities.”

The biggest prescribed burn to occur in 20 years happened this spring, where only 300 acres were burned.

“Again, this is the largest burn we’ve had in 20 years, and remember, our particular unit is 520,000 acres,” Hensiek said “So if you think about that in terms of scale, how small our prescribed burn footprint has been.”

Missoula County updated its Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2018, outlining how to avoid risks between fires and homes, implementing the county’s Growth Policy and introducing its first wildfire preparedness coordinator.

Strohmaier said regulations, zoning and community outreach are new updates to the plan. The county is considering changes to subdivision regulations to mitigate wildfire risk and the possibility of adopting a wildlife urban interface code that determines how future development occurs.

Zoning areas as “fire plains” could help reduce development in fire-prone areas.

Coordinating neighborhood ambassador programs are also in the works.

“It’s a way of identifying a liaison who can work with their neighborhood, their community, tie in with fire professionals and really bring the resources to bear that will help mitigate fire risks in those specific neighborhoods,” Strohmaier said.

Fires are inevitable, but reducing risk and intensity is the goal. Having zero fires is not an option, forest services researcher Mark Finney said.

“These are our real choices. How much wildfire do we want, and what kind do we want? What effects do we want it to have?” Finney said. “If we want only the most extreme effects under the worst case conditions, then let’s keep doing what we’re doing, because we’re doing pretty well at that.”

For questions about how neighborhoods or homeowners can reduce the risk of fire in their community, contact wildfire preparedness coordinator Max Rebholz at mrebholz@missoulacounty.us.

Contact reporter Mari Hall via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.