Firefight shifts to subdivisions

Firefight shifts to subdivisions

4 October 2005

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WHITEFISH – On the oversized color-coded map, the forestlands west of Whitefish appear to lock tight, like so many cogs in a large and lumbering machine.

For decades, that machine’s gears turned steadily, fueling the wood products industry in a synergy of federal, state and private timberlands, all coupled and connected by their common borders and collective goals. Logs rolled out, dollars rolled in, and the cogs kept turning together.
But in more recent years, urban sprawl and subdivision have thrown a wrench into the gears, changing forever the way the woods work.

Now, the ever-expanding wildland-urban interface – where subdivisions meet ecosystems – “is a really important issue, and a big thing for foresters.”

So said Bill Pursell, who chairs the Flathead chapter of the Society of American Foresters. SAF is the national scientific and educational organization for professional foresters.

The interface issue, Pursell said, “is just huge to foresters. It’s just changing our world.”

Nowhere is that change more apparent than in the woodsy Elkhorn subdivision west of Whitefish, ringed by logging lands owned by federal, state and private timber managers.

On Thursday, SAF joined the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce for a field trip into Elkhorn, part of the Flathead Valley’s annual “timber tour.” It is telling, perhaps, that in recent years the “timber tour” has become something more of a “subdivision tour,” evidence of Pursell’s changing world.

“There are places like this all around the valley, sort of tucked up into the hills,” said Steve Thompson, a member of the chamber’s natural resource committee. Most folks, he said, never see these neighborhoods and don’t give them much thought until the summer fire season brings flames to their doorsteps.

Firefighters from both state and federal agencies have recognized their changing role in changing times, acknowledging that battling blazes amid neighborhoods is more expensive, more dangerous and more complicated than fighting the wildland fires of yesteryear.

But the draw to build is compelling. Even the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation – which has specifically identified the added expense and danger of fighting fire in the urban interface – has sought to get into the interface business itself.

The lands are just too valuable as residential homesites to justify continued logging.

Across some 13,000 state-owned acres that encircle Whitefish like a moat of green, the DNRC suggested some amount of urban development, despite the department’s firefighting concerns.

Locals, however, balked at losing working forests and recreation, and a collaborative plan was hatched that would allow creative solutions such as conservation easements and purchase of development rights.

For private landowners, though, the drive to subdivide only grows with each uptick of the real estate market, and to date, little has been done to curb interface growth.

An analysis by Flathead County showed clearly that far-flung urban growth into interface areas puts substantial pressure on road budgets, bridge budgets, garbage collection budgets and law enforcement budgets.

And with no cost-of-service fees, or “impact fees,” Thompson said, the overall population continues to subsidize the very interface growth everyone is so worried about.

The expansion into the fringe also is subsidized by wildfire suppression, which cost nearly $80 million during Montana’s 2003 summer season. About a quarter of that went to protecting homes and other buildings in the woods, prompting DNRC’s top boss to say the interface had become a “major, major impact on our escalating costs.”

One way to lower those costs is to use taxpayer dollars u front to subsidize forest cleanup in and around rural neighborhoods – something the residents of Elkhorn have readily embraced.

But an even cheaper solution might be to get a handle on the growth before it happens.

In places like Blaine County, Idaho, and Summit County, Colo., county commissioners have zoned some forestlands off-limits to home construction. And in areas where construction is allowed, they require metal roofing, fireproof landscaping, sprinklers, cisterns, water pumps, driveways big enough for fire trucks.

“It caused a huge uproar in this community,” Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom told the Missoulian after the 2000 fire season. “Some people said, ‘By God, I have a right to build my house wherever I choose, and I don’t have to follow your rules.’ “

There were concerns the new regulations would increase land prices, Lindstrom said, would trod upon private property rights, “but we had to do something. It’s not fair to allow a few landowners to saddle everyone else with the costs of protecting and replacing those homes. The fact is, the people who can afford a mountainside home can afford a sprinkler system.”

Dan Richardson certainly can.

His home, tucked neatly into the Elkhorn subdivision, is the neighborhood “safety zone,” a sanctuary into which firefighters can fall back if the flames blow up.

His house has sprinklers inside and out, on the roof and in the yard, and a couple of 250-foot fire hoses that reach into the surrounding woods.

He has built a well that pumps 36 gallons a minute, a reservoir with 2,500 gallons, a pond with 30,000 gallons more. Underground propane tanks can fuel generators that will keep the water flowing, even if power lines go down.

“What he can basically do here is make it rain for 24 to 36 hours,” said Bill Swope, who manages federal grant money that helps homeowners subsidize the fireproofing of their property.

It is exactly the kind of setup required in other states, but here, Richardson paid for it out of his own pocketbook, did it because he wanted to, not because he had to. In Montana, many counties don’t even have building inspectors, let alone firewise building codes.

In Montana, Thompson said, the system actually encourages, rather than discourages, growth into that very interface everyone is so worried about.

And the costs, he said, go well beyond the taxpayer. They get right at the heart of industry and community, part of that changing world confronted by Pursell and his fellow foresters.

Around Whitefish, people have historically hunted, fished, hiked and biked on state forestlands. They’ve ridden horses and off-road vehicles, picked huckleberries and cut firewood, even as commercial timber sales have gone on all around them.

But put that land into residential development, said DNRC’s Steve Lorch, and those secondary uses might disappear. His agency, which once focused pretty narrowly on timber values, now must look at wildlife values, watershed values, recreation values, development values.

All of that and more was on the table when DNRC decided to log some land downhill of Elkhorn, thinning out a couple dozen log truck loads and slashing and burning much more to finally create a fire break for Richardson and his neighbors.

Now, said Swope, “there’s a reasonable chance firefighters could stop a fire down there before it ever got up into the subdivision.”

Some professional foresters have questioned the cut from a silvicultural point of view, but given the goal of fire control, it appears to have been a success. If the cut can slow a wildfire, then the grant-sponsored thinning in the neighborhood above has a chance to work.

Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service, whose lands wrap around and into the Elkhorn neighborhood, has thinned the forest along the residential boundary, and hopes to do more in coming years.

But even homeowner Mike Frost wishes it hadn’t come to all this. It would have made more sense, he said, to have some design standards in place before the subdivision was built, some rules for how and where to build.

As it stands, he said, the 38 homeowners sprawled across 550 forested acres share a single emergency exit road, a route “that would send us right back into the path of the fire.”

It’s a tangle of competing uses Chuck Roady knows all too well. Roady works for Stoltze Lumber Co., a local outfit that owns about 36,000 acres of working forest around the Flathead Valley.

It’s a constant struggle as the interface grows, Roady said, as people share roads with the timber company, share space in the forest.

Stoltze has long been lauded by locals for keeping its lands open to all sorts of public uses, for maintaining a habitat well used by elk and moose, grizzly bears and trout. But a new public seems to not understand the needs of its woods-working neighbor, Roady said.

They complain about truck traffic, complain about smoke, complain about seasonal gates, complain about just about everything. It’s not easy to log in an emerging urban landscape, he said, adding that “there’s a lot of pressures.”

Of course, not the least among those pressures is how to keep making lumber in an era when forestland is worth far more as a homesite. Not a week goes by, he said, that he doesn’t get a call or two from interested buyers.

If that transition to residential should happen, he said, all the public access Stoltze allows on its 36,000 acres will be gone, shut behind driveways and gated communities. And it will be replaced with the taxpayer-subsidized expense and danger of ever more urban interface.

The community, then, has a stake in keeping Stoltze and DNRC in the land management business, Thompson said, has a stake in making sure working forests keep working.

One way to do that is to partner private landowners and public land managers for timber thinning that benefits everyone, transforming the wrench into one of the cogs that keeps the sawmills fed.

Another way is to eliminate the taxpayer subsidies that have promoted fringe development, or even to begin limiting continued growth into the interface, as has already happened in many Western states.

“We didn’t write these regulations because we wanted to,” Summit County Commissioner Lindstrom said. “We did it because we couldn’t afford not to.”


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