Flathead Tops Recent Fire Risk Study

By Beacon Staff

If current Western building trends continue on private property bordering fire-prone public lands, future firefighting costs will skyrocket to perhaps unmanageable amounts, according to a recent study. Flathead County already has more homes in these areas than any other county in the state.

Headwaters Economics, an environmental research organization based out of Bozeman, released a study detailing the potential for future home construction next to fire-prone public lands and the implications for wildfire fighting costs. According to the report, protecting private residences located in the wildland urban interface (WUI) – where forested private property borders public land – costs taxpayers $1 billion per year.

“We can’t control the weather or where fires will start,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters, in a press release. “But we can control where we build new homes. Our local communities plan for parks, we plan for traffic, and we plan for water. We need to plan for wildfire as well.”

Currently only 14 percent of WUI land in the West is developed, according to the report. If 50 percent were to be developed – a definite possibility considering current rates of growth – annual firefighting costs to protect homes could reach $4.3 billion annually. By comparison, the report states that the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget is $4.5 billion.

Overall, Montana has the third-most developed WUI land behind California and Oregon. Flathead County has 60.6 square miles of developed WUI land. By comparison, Gallatin County has 8.1.

The responsibility for protecting private residences ultimately falls on the shoulders of the county, not the Forest Service. Mark Peck, director of the Flathead County Office of Emergency Services, said homes built on Flathead’s WUI are costly because the county has to concentrate valuable resources on specific houses. While fire crews are battling the blaze elsewhere, local crews from area fire departments are stationed at private homes, often for weeks.

“It’s a huge drain,” he said. “The cost of wildland firefighting due to the urban interface is much greater than just fighting a fire in the wilderness.”

Peck stressed that he does not oppose homebuilding on the WUI. People will always want to build in those beautiful areas and many will. He just believes the county needs to more closely regulate development in the WUI. Also, people building homes in those remote areas need to carefully follow county regulations.

“At some point in time there has to be some standards in development (on the WUI),” Peck said. “We’ve passed that point.”

The regulatory concerns that need to be addressed, Peck said, include overall home density in the WUI, specific density in certain areas and specifications for homeowners like clearing underbrush, having adequate water and shelter areas for firefighters, eliminating tree branches overhanging homes and following road codes. Many homeowners obey every specification, Peck said, but the ones who don’t are problematic, especially when they disregard road regulations. Property owners sometimes name roads themselves and don’t register them with the county, Peck said. Then when a fire threatens their home, they “expect the government to bail them out.”

“There are some places that we just can’t get the stuff to and it makes it very difficult to provide protection,” Peck said.

Occasionally it’s not only difficult for the county to get resources to threatened homes – it’s impossible because firefighters get lost.

“We try to find them and sometimes we do, depending on the phone system,” Peck said. “But sometimes it’s just, ‘Hey, we need you to tell us how to get there.’”

Of course the home and its owners are always points of concern, Peck said, but the firefighters are his foremost concern.

“When we look at the majority of deaths in wildland fires, probably about half of them have been folks providing structural protection,” Peck said. “They are in these areas and they get trapped.”

“My bottom line statement is that I’m not going to risk a firefighter’s life for a house that isn’t properly prepared – we can rebuild houses, but we can’t rebuild dads and moms.”

Denise Germann, public affairs officer for Flathead National Forest, declined to comment on the report but acknowledged that protecting homes is more expensive than regular wilderness firefighting and homeowners need to do their part in preparing their houses. She pointed out that one positive to WUI development is it brings together federal and local officials.

“The more we have homes in the interface the more cooperation we have between federal, state and local authorities,” she said.