WHITEFISH – Mike Frost and his neighbors aren’t loggers.
They aren’t foresters or silviculturists or land managers. Yet they spend most of their time in the woods west of Whitefish, in a subdivision that supported much woods work before it sprouted high-end homes.
“We knew we had to do something about wildfire,” Frost said. “We wanted to create a fuel break around the neighborhood, but we didn’t have any idea about where to start.”
So they formed a committee, made Frost the chairman and started asking the experts for advice. Before long, they’d tracked down Bill Swope, a retired federal forester who helps manage grants “intended to create defensible space in these wildland-urban interface areas.”
Swope now works as the forester for the Northwest Resource Conservation and Development district, a regional economic development group that does business in Flathead, Lincoln, Lake and Sanders counties.
Money, Swope said, comes down from the federal government through the National Fire Plan, filters through the state to outfits such as his, and trickles finally onto the ground in neighborhoods just like Frost’s Elkhorn Subdivision.
The goal, Swope said, is to provide some degree of safety for firefighters, to make private property morefireproof, to design a moat of sorts around sylvan subdivisions.
Along the way, he said, taxpayers save money by spending it upfront: “It’s a whole lot cheaper,” he said, “to do the work now than to fight the fire later.”
In a red-hot wildfire year, millions are spent fighting fire in Montana – nearly $80 million, for instance, in 2003. In cooler, wetter times, millions are still spent – about $6.5 million this year for Montana.
Much of that money, Swope said, goes toward protecting homes. It’s a big change, he said, from the days when he worked for the U.S. Forest Service, days when “we never had to deal with subdivisions.”
“And we know interface fires are exponentially more expensive than wildland fires,” said Paula Rosenthal, National Fire Plan coordinator for Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Missoula office.
The high cost goes a good way toward explaining why, sometime about the late 1990s, county governments began knocking on Forest Service doors, looking for lightning maps and fire maps and studies of forest fire history before approving subdivision requests.
“Everything changed,” Swope said. “The values at risk changed the priorities completely.”
After the big-burn summer of 2000, land managers in places like the Bitterroot and Helena national forests started seriously tapping into National Fire Plan money, Swope said, passing the cash down the chain of command and into the new neighborhoods.
He and others found themselves besieged by homeowners, all looking, as Frost said, “to tap into the various resources in the community.”
Swope is one of those resources. So is Carol Daly, who manages grants in the West Glacier Area. So is the Bigfork Fire Department, which also manages grants.
Although the money comes from the top down, Swope said, the program operates from the bottom up. First, neighbors need to get together and come up with a proposal. Then, a call to local DNRC office helps figure out which pot of money they’re authorized to tap.
If it’s Swope’s pot, he’ll begin by looking at the county fire plan, prioritizing projects based on how likely wildfire is in the area, how many lives might be at stake, how much property is on the line. (He’s even been known to send out informational letters to high-risk neighborhoods, lighting a match under them, so to speak, to get things cooking.)
If the neighborhood proposal fits, he said, he’ll scratch up the cash to pay for as much as75 percent of the cost to work private lands. (That percentage varies. In the Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development district, for instance, it’s 50-50 for residents of Mineral, Missoula and Ravalli counties.)
Homeowners can contract the work out or can do it themselves. Either way, they keep what income, if any, is created by the logging.
In Frost’s neighborhood, about 25 of the 40 or so homeowners on Elkhorn’s 550 acres joined in the grant application, and received something in the neighborhood of $600 an acre to thin and brush and slash and pile and chip.
It costs more than treating wildlands, Swope said, because “you’re working right in and around the homes.” In some areas, the final cost is well over $1,000 an acre.
But Swope remains convinced it’s a bargain, especially when stacked up against the cost of battling big blazes, or the price of a firefighter’s life.
The program, Daly said, is now catching on with developers, who are making grant applications before the homes are even built.
“That’s really the time to do it,” she said, “before people move in.”
Of course, she said, to have a real impact you have to begin even before the subdivision is established, when the county still can require fire-safe standards by way of building codes and other regulations.
“But that’s the county’s job,” she said. “Our focus is on places where there are already homes, where people have been for a long time.”
The program appears to be working well, said the DNRC’s Rosenthal. But there remain questions about its long-term viability.
The money could run out at any time and already Montana is having trouble attracting federal grant dollars. And there’s no real enforcement mechanism to make sure homeowners keep up the thinning as forests grow back, Rosenthal said. Most troublesome, there’s no obligation for the next owner to do any work if the house sells.
“But it’s better than nothing,” she said, “and homeowners are more likely to keep up with it if it’s done right in the first place.”
Of that, Frost is certain. When neighbors started talking about logging his piece of paradise, he said, “I was a little skeptical.” Now, however, he’s a convert, and most of the neighborhood is excited about keeping the ball rolling.
“Up to this point,” Frost said, “it’s really exceeded our expectations for success. We haven’t had a single complaint.”