Missoula County’s wildfire preparation guru a one-stop shop for risk reduction

Missoula County wildfire preparation coordinator Max Rebholz is helping local residents become more aware of and better prepared for wildfires. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

As anyone who has lived in Montana for a summer or two knows, wildfire is part of the landscape. It always has been. Western forests evolved with, adapted to and depend on fire. 

But due to a variety of factors – including past management practices, fire suppression and climate change – the frequency, size and intensity of wildfire is on the rise, according to scientists with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, and it’s a trend that’s likely to continue.

For those who live in and along forests, wildfire poses a real and serious threat. However, with knowledge and preparation, the risks can be greatly reduced.

Max Rebholz is ready and eager to help.

Since last October, Rebholz has been the wildfire preparation coordinator for Missoula County’s Office of Emergency Management. His position is jointly funded by the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Missoula County.

In addition to giving presentations to help inform and educate local residents about wildfire and potential threats, Rebholz also coordinates free risk assessments for property owners, provides recommendations on how to mitigate and reduce those risks, and connects people with the right resources to implement his recommendations.

“I’m sort of a one-stop shop,” he says.

He brings a wealth of experience to the job. Having graduated with a degree in ecosystem science and restoration with a minor in fire sciences from the University of Montana, Rebholz has worked for the Montana Conservation Corps, U.S. Forest Service and private restoration companies.

“My goal is to engage with the public, help people make their property more fire-resilient, and ultimately reduce structure-ignition potential,” he said.

In a nutshell, his job is to hep implement Missoula’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

Initiated by the county, the community plan was created and adopted in 2005 with assistance from state, federal and tribal agencies as well as local fire departments, conservation organizations and others. Because of numerous changes that have occurred since then – new housing and roads, increased fire risks, and forest fuel treatments near communities – the plan was updated in 2018.

Community wildfire protection plans have been developed throughout the nation as part of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which provides incentives for federal agencies such as the Forest Service “to consider the priorities of local communities that develop and implement forest management and hazardous fuel reduction projects.”

The community plans must meet three minimum requirements: 1) Show collaboration between local and state agencies, in consultation with federal agencies and other interested parties; 2) Identify and prioritize fuel treatments to reduce hazardous fuel areas, and 3) Recommend strategies to reduce the ignitability of structures. 

Janet McDonald shot this time lapse of the Lolo Peak fire’s run in August 2017, sharing it on social media. (Janet McDonald)

The Missoula County plan was put to the test in the summer of 2017, when numerous fires burned throughout the county – including the Lolo Peak Fire, Sapphire Complex and Rice Ridge Fire.

As stated in the introduction to the 2018 updated plan: “These fires brought a host of challenges to local communities. Residents experienced weeks of poor air quality and evacuations; first responders were on the front lines of protecting property and other community values at risk; and land managers will be dealing with the long-term effects of post-fire landscape restoration for decades. Although wildfire has shaped the region’s landscapes for millennia, the 2017 wildfire season underscored the importance of planning, collaboration, and action to address future incidents.”

From the national level down to the local level, “each goal is linked,” Rebholz said. “It’s a large, cohesive strategy. If one part collapses, the strategy fails. We need to work together to make our forest and communities more resilient to fire.” 

To contact Max Rebholz and learn more about his presentations, free property risk assessments and other available resources, email: mrebholz@missoulacounty.us. Or call: (406) 258- 3633.

For more information about the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, click here: https://www.missoulacounty.us/government/public-safety/office-of-emergency-management/community-wildfire-protection-plan