Missoula County: FEMA should ease restrictions tied to fire mitigation grants

The Lolo Peak fire gets rolling in 2017. Missoula County received three Fire Management Assistance Grants from FEMA to conduct fuel treatment, though the grants come with restrictions. (USFS)

Three federal grants stemming from the 2017 wildfire season in Missoula County will go far in helping land managers and property owners conduct fuel mitigation in the wildland urban interface.

But the grants also come with limitations issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Missoula County officials hope to bend the right ear in Washington, D.C., to expand the options, including those related to burning slash.

Adrienne Beck, director of the county’s disaster and emergency services, said the county became eligible for a Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) after the 2017 fire season, which was one of the worst in state history.

The grants are awarded when certain conditions are met during large-scale fires that threaten communities or vital infrastructure. Each grant is worth around $420,000 for fuel or hazard mitigation work.

“When we have an FMAG declared in our county, that automatically makes a pot of money available for post-fire mitigation administered by FEMA,” Beck said. “Following the 2017 wildfire season, we had three FMAG declarations in Missoula County, one for the Rice Ridge fire, one for the Lolo Peak fire and one for the Liberty fire.”

The county applied for the full amount, or around $1.2 million, and has proposed using it in two phases. Beck said Phase 1, valued at $876,000, will tackle fuel mitigation within the home ignition zone, or 300 feet from a structure within the wildland urban interface.

“This funding will enable us to provide 75% of the cost of doing that work, with the homeowner providing a 25% match, typically in cash, but they can also do it in voluntary labor,” Beck said. “It’s a three year grant program.”

Phase 2 enables the county to consider larger tracts of land on private property that may benefit from fuel treatment. The work must be conducted within 2 miles of a structure, something Commissioner Dave Strohmaier questioned.

“I’m somewhat dubious of some of the mitigation work that gets done far outside the home ignition zone and the efficacy of that work in actually delivering on the desired results,” he said. “There’s more dots that need to be connected on whether 2 miles out actually delivers on the results of public safety.”

FEMA regulations also exclude open burning as an approved treatment. Beck said that complicates the program and its effectiveness, especially as it relates to large rural landscapes.

Efforts to change FEMA’s policy against burning haven’t been effective, Beck said.

“We’ve pushed review of that policy all the way up to Washington and haven’t received any results from that,” she said. “We’re forced into a situation where we have to chip the debris that’s created from these fuel mitigation projects. It adds to the complexities as far as our ability to do a lot of work.”

Among the challenges, Beck said another crew is required to deal with the debris, and broadcasting it back to the ground doesn’t meet with good results. The bureaucracy complicates the grants.

“I’ll be meeting with Sen. Jon Tester’s natural resource staffer in the next couple weeks,” Strohmaier said. “Perhaps there’s an opportunity over the period of this grant’s time frame to take a different approach at adjusting FEMA’s thinking on these things.”