Dave Atkins

Whether we live in the forest, prairie or community we all live in an environment that evolved with both intentional fire and wildfires, both of which will never go away. So, we need to learn to live with fire by preparing for its inevitability. We can do this by creating resistant and resilient communities and forests.

Why am I talking about wildfire in January? The best time to prepare for a fire is when it is not imminent. Whether you live in the forest or in a subdivision, you have the responsibility to be prepared. Montana Safe Fire Council with the support of many other organizations has recently updated their “Living with Fire” publication (https://firesafemt.org/img/LivingwFireFSM20091.pdf). It provides detailed information to help you identify the fire vulnerabilities of your home and your surrounding landscape.

Simple, often relatively low expense actions can dramatically reduce your risk: Put eighth inch or smaller mesh over vents in your house to prevent embers from entering the attic; avoid storing flammable material under your deck; replace highly flammable plants, like junipers, with fire tolerant plants, like quaking aspen, mountain ash, and many others; use non-combustible ground cover, like pebbles within 5 feet of the house; and employ other techniques that reduce the risk of severe damage and loss.

If you have forest land, whether 5 acres or 500 acres, you can create a more resistant and resilient forest through harvests, piling the branches and tops and burning them, or conducting a low intensity ground fire under your forest that removes the small branches and needles that drive a fire. Create a diversity of age classes in your forest, and plant a variety of more fire-tolerant species. MSU Extension Forest Stewardship courses can help you develop a plan for your acreage and there are materials available online for landowners. (https://www.montana.edu/extension/forestry/)

The last line of defense is fire insurance to help replace any losses or damage when a fire does occur. The large fires that have burned communities and caused billions of dollars of loss have spooked many insurance companies. These are in addition to flooding, hurricane and tornado losses that have all increased over the past several decades across the country. Some insurance companies have pulled out of some locations, whether it be certain zip codes or whole states.

Accurately identifying the risks and then mitigating them are key to the prosperity of your family, your neighborhood, your community, your watershed, the wildlife’s habitat, our recreation areas and the scenery of this beautiful place we all call home. The major wildfire financial losses are when whole neighborhoods or communities are destroyed.

These financially destructive fires are magnified when the fuel becomes the houses next to each other and the fire department is overwhelmed. In these situations individual action is essential, but insufficient. It requires neighborhood and community action. Your house survivability is dependent on both you and your neighbors’ precautions, whether that is a neighbor’s house or forest 20-30 feet away, and whether that neighbor is an individual, a company, or a public landowner. We are all in this together.

So, as you enjoy family and friends during the wintery and snowy recreation, think about what you as an individual need to do, what your community needs to do, what public land managers need to do to better live with fire? Then make a plan and act upon it. The information we all need is readily available. Don’t wait until it is 95 degrees with 30 mile per hour winds and the fire brands are raining down.

Dave Atkins – Forest Ecologist, Forester, forest landowner, homeowner and President of the Montana Forest Owners Association (https://www.montanaforestowners.org/).