Experts Call on Legislature to Tweak State Fire Policy

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS (AP) – Montana must change its approach to fire policy as more people move into fire-prone areas, three environmental experts said in a letter sent to state lawmakers.

The state should emphasize protecting communities from wildfires primarily through preventive measures, according to the letter. Meanwhile, a more hands-off approach should be taken with fires burning away from developed areas.

The letter was signed by Paul Alaback, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana; Cathy Whitlock, an earth sciences professor at Montana State University; and Tom DeLuca, who was a forestry professor at UM for 12 years before taking a job with The Wilderness Society in 2006.

The reworked policy would save money while allowing fire, in some places, to continue to play the restorative role it has historically, the three wrote. That could mean long-term savings because more regular fires keep fuels from accumulating and turning into large-scale blazes.

“We’re definitely in a climate swing right now and we could see broad scale fire occurrences pretty regularly,” DeLuca said Thursday.

The professors argued that stronger efforts should be made to safeguard homes and communities, including the use of fire-resistant materials in construction, landscaping with less-flammable plants and keeping firewood, trees and other flammable items away from homes.

“That’s where we’re going to get the most bang for our buck,” DeLuca said.

The letter was sent to the Legislature’s Fire Suppression Interim Committee, which was formed when a special session last fall allocated $82 million for firefighting costs.