Living with Fire II: Missoula among communities working to become ‘fire-resilient’

A patchwork of burned areas and smoke from the Fawn fire in Yellowstone National Park, September 3, 2016. (Neal Herbert/National Park Service)

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this three-part series, Montana Free Press examines how federal land management agencies have approached wildfire in the past and highlights key public and private sector developments that could change how we engage with it in the future. Previously: Part 1 – The evolution of wildfire suppression.

(Montana Free Press) Ray Rasker, who has researched wildfire for more than a decade as executive director of the Bozeman-based nonprofit Headwaters Economics, makes a bold claim about wildfire and its human impacts.

“We don’t have a forest fire problem, we have a home ignition problem,” he said. “As soon as you come to that realization, it changes your view on wildfire.”

Within that understanding, Rasker sees an opportunity for relief. If communities across the U.S. can become better adapted to wildfire by using preventative measures to reduce home losses, the thinking goes, they’ll be more resilient in the face of fire.

Rasker started researching the intersection of wildfire and policy in 2008, when the Montana Legislature asked him to calculate the state’s cost for suppressing wildfires in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). His organization, a think tank known for its work on land management issues, found the state spent $13.9 million protecting homes from wildfire in 2006, and $9.2 million in 2007. Headwaters has been studying wildfire and related trends ever since.

Ray Rasker has researched wildfire for more than a decade as the executive director of Bozeman-based nonprofit Headwaters Economics.

Four years ago, Rasker expanded the scope of his work into a program designed to help communities nationwide — 40, to date, including Park, Lewis and Clark, and Missoula counties in Montana — develop proactive land-use planning to mitigate risks and losses associated with wildfire. Interested cities and counties have to apply for the assistance and demonstrate willingness to implement regulatory measures in order to work with Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW), which is funded by the U.S. Forest Service and private foundations.

Since Headwaters and Denver-based consulting firm Wildfire Planning International launched CPAW in 2015, Rasker has found common themes among participating communities: They have experienced major fire recently, have been threatened by such a fire, or have leadership willing to start difficult community conversations about wildfire management and mitigation.

Some of a community’s willingness to change growth policies, subdivision regulations, building codes, and the like can be attributed to economics. Although significant, the money spent putting out a wildfire is minor — about 9 percent — relative to fire’s total financial impact, Rasker said. “Fifty percent of the cost is borne by the community. That’s businesses that close, that’s the loss of tax revenue during the fire, that’s the cost of reconstruction — restoring your wetland, for example. Your tax base goes up in flames.”

When economic losses become severe enough, elected officials find the political cover they need to push for additional regulation. Rasker said he’s seen the dynamic at work in several communities CPAW has worked with, including Flagstaff, Arizona; Boulder, Colorado; and San Diego, California. “Now it’s not planning as a liberal agenda; now it suddenly becomes something that’s fiscally responsible.”

Such regulations can include mandating better egress roads to make subdivision evacuations safer, requiring new buildings to be constructed with fire-resistant material, and developing landscaping guidelines for homeowners. There was a time, Rasker said, when municipal fire codes mandating safety measures like sprinkler systems and marked fire exits were all but nonexistent, resulting in casualties. “In an urban environment, we’ve fixed this problem,” he said. “But when the houses are surrounded by trees on the outside of town, suddenly none of those rules apply,” Rasker said, referencing a lack of regulations and enforcement in many rural areas.

Rasker frequently encounters politicians calling for logging to reduce the likelihood and intensity of headline-grabbing wildfires, including a late-2018 executive order from President Trump calling for 3.8 million board feet of timber to be harvested from Forest Service lands. Rasker said research about logging and home ignitions suggests this strategy is misguided. Given fire’s unpredictable nature and the vastness of the forested landscape, logging deep in the backcountry to address impacts in the WUI is an inefficient and rarely effective guessing game, Rasker said, and the best way to keep a house from burning is to mitigate against airborne embers.

Fire-adapted construction and landscaping practices that remove vulnerabilities within 200 feet can help a house survive ember showers, the little-understood source of most structure losses, Rasker said. Such vulnerabilities include screen-free attic vents that suck burning material into a home, landscaping mulch that acts like kindling, cedar fences running like a wick right up to a house, and gutters littered with pine needles. The list goes on.

Rasker said he supports targeted thinning, but in order to be effective against structure loss, it has to be done within a 200-foot radius of the structure, which usually means it’s called for on private, not public, property. “You can’t log your way out of this,” he said. “If you’re going to wield a chainsaw, help landowners reduce fuel on their property.”

County commissioners can have a significant influence on whether home losses due to wildfire get better or worse, Rasker said. That group includes David Strohmaier, who has engaged with fire as a wildland firefighter, writer, and now policy maker.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier

Prior to serving on the Missoula City Council, Strohmaier spent 15 years working in fire management. He became a county commissioner in 2016, at the tail end of the county’s CPAW-facilitated update to its Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The 173-page plan covers a broad gamut, from the county’s fire history and smoke impact zones to an action plan calling for the use of open space bonds to develop wildfire buffer zones, cooperation with land managers like the Forest Service to use prescribed fire in priority areas, and updated building codes, zoning, and subdivision regulations.

It’s not explicit in the county’s current plan, but Strohmaier said he would eventually like to see certain fire-prone areas treated more like floodplains —places where building simply isn’t allowed because the risk is too great. “Somehow we’ve given ourselves a pass when it comes to fire, but I think … there are ‘fireplains’ just as much as there are floodplains,” he said. The budget-breaking 2017 fire season, Montana’s largest in more than a century in terms of acreage burned, he added, underscored the need for counties statewide to consider contentious topics like decreasing the density of development in fire-prone areas through zoning.

Strohmaier said he’s optimistic about Missoula County’s ability to be a statewide leader, given its resources. Missoula is home to the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation, a handful of nonprofits that work on wildfire issues, and the Rocky Mountain Research Station Fire Sciences Lab, an arm of the Forest Service that produces cutting-edge wildfire research.

Greg Dillon, a spatial fire analyst at the fire sciences lab, helped map Missoula County’s fire hazard for its Community Wildfire Protection Plan using a huge array of variables, including topography, recent fire history, and vegetation type. By next spring, that kind of detailed fire-risk mapping will be publicly available in an online format so land-use planners, elected officials, and fire managers nationwide can make informed decisions at the community or county scale.

“What’s exciting to me is that we’re developing more and more sophisticated and thoughtful tools to help [firefighters and fire managers] make better decisions,” Dillon said of the new research. Such tools are designed to inform both immediate strategic decisions about active fires and broader, forward-looking policies geared toward fire management, rather than a default strategy of suppression. “My hope is that in the next 20 years we see more of that stuff being widely adopted,” Dillon said.

In the short term, the federal government will likely continue to spend vast amounts of money — a record $3.14 billion last year — suppressing wildfire. Much of that money will be spent fighting fires in the WUI. Rasker said that directing even a fraction of that funding to help preventative programs like CPAW reach more communities would have an outsized impact.

“I would love to have 1 percent of that. We could make a huge difference,” he said.

Part 3 of Living with Fire will examine private-sector developments in wildfire management, including the growing presence of private firefighting firms deployed by insurance companies to prevent property loss.

Living with Fire I: The evolution of wildfire suppression began in Missoula