Lewis and Clark County: Firefighters Not Required to Protect Homes

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA — Firefighters in Lewis and Clark County will no longer be obligated to protect homes threatened by wildfires under a resolution passed by county commissioners.

The first of its kind resolution in the state says the location of homes will no longer dictate fire-suppression tactics or where fire lines are placed, the Missoulian reported in a story Monday.

Building defensible space around homes is the responsibility of property owners, said Sonny Stiger, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee and a board member with FireSafe Montana who helped write the resolution.

“A lot of crews think they have to protect homes, and we’re trying to make it clear they’re just sticks and bricks,” he said. “This lets our firefighters know they’re not obligated to put their lives on the line to save homes.”

Commissioners signed the resolution last month. It also directs local fire crews to receive training in basic wildfire behavior.

Stiger will teach the first class to volunteer crews in Wolf Creek, Craig and Dearborn. Additional classes have been scheduled in Kalispell, Stevensville and Willow Creek.

While many volunteer firefighters are versed in working structure fires, they often lack basic knowledge of wildfire behavior, Stiger said.

Fire scientists and policymakers from several counties gathered at the University of Montana earlier this month to find ways to address fire risks in the wildland-urban interface. They looked at questions about whether the state should regulate private landowners and if climate change affects forest health.

“Fire is something that affects us all,” James Burchfield, dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation, said at the last meeting. “And how is it that we’re going to collectively deal with that?”

Stiger said more people are moving into areas with a greater risk of wildfire. The problems will only get worse unless something is done now to correct it or head it off, he said.

Jennifer LaManna, a fire ecologist with FireSafe Montana, said the effort will continue to raise awareness among firefighters and safety.

“It’s a certain mindset that goes on with firefighters,” said LaManna. “To stand down and watch something burn is not part of what they want to do. They’re there to save things. There’s a big mind shift that’s going to have to happen. This (resolution) is a big first step.”

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