USA — A home in the woods, with the peaceful chatter of pine squirrels andthe occasional deer feeding on your flowers is a Western dream. However,protecting these dream homes has become a nightmare for the government agenciescharged with fire management.
Look to any Western state and the problems are similar too many homes on thefringes of communities where wildfire is as natural as the sunrise. This oftenmeans firefighters have to put more energy in saving homes than fighting thefire.
It’s been a growing problem for decades. In the mid-90s firefighters weretrained on how to dig line, establish safety zones and escape routes. Now theyalso learn how to establish fire perimeters and conduct burnouts around homes,how to coat structures with fire retardant foam and how to deal with propanetanks and woodpiles.
Come January, the Montana Legislature will be faced with legislation dealingwith homes in the urban-wildland interface. As the legislative session loomsless than two weeks away, a handful of bills are popping up that address growthand development in the interface and would change dramatically the way state andlocal governments deal with an already difficult problem.
The essence of the bills is that counties would have to address the interface intheir growth policies, subdivision regulations and eventually zoning. They wouldhave until July of 2009 to get this done and if they failed to meet thatdeadline, they would lose access to the state’s general fund for fire fightingcosts.
“There are people who will say, this is about kicking people out of thewoods,” said Bob Harrington, Montana State Forester with the Department ofNatural Resources and Conservation. “From my perspective that’s really notwhat this is about.”
When fires burn in the interface they simply cost more to fight. It’s moredangerous because people are more apt to risk their lives for a house than astand of trees. And the people who ultimately get the billed for these fires aretaxpayers. So why not be proactive in trying to make homes and communities inthe interface better prepared to deal with wildfire, Harrington asked. Why notput more responsibilities on local governments, developers and landowners tocomply with standards for building in the urban interface?
“Hopefully we can reduce fire costs and improve the safety of firefighters,”he said.
The 2006 fire season in Montana was pricey. Homes around Billings and Big Timberburned as fires torched forests and rangeland. The cost to the state for theseason was about $37 million.
“All counties in Montana have wildfires and they have homes and developmentin the path of them,” Harrington said.
The federal government has noticed the increase in fire costs and according toofficials, the reason lies in the interface. In a recent Forest Service audit,the agency took a hard look at fire fighting costs in the interface:
“Forest Service’s (FS) wildfire suppression costs have exceeded $1 billionin 3 of the past 6 years. FS’ escalating cost to fight fires is largely due toits efforts to protect private property in the wildland urban interface (WUI)bordering FS lands. Homeowner reliance on the Federal government to providewildfire suppression services places an enormous financial burden on FS, as thelead Federal agency providing such services. It also removes incentives forlandowners moving into the WUI to take responsibility for their own protectionand ensure their homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reducewildfire risks.”
Wildfires have long been part of the culture and hazard of the West. Theecosystems here have evolved with fire. It’s a force of nature more frequentthan floods and often more destructive. But while restrictions on building inthe floodplain have long been part of the spectrum of land use laws in Montana,nothing has really been done to address the wildland interface from a governmentlevel.
“If you look at most subdivision regs most of the language in them ispermissive when it comes to fire,” said Bruce Suenram, president of FireLogistics Inc., a Montana consultant company that helps counties and communitieswith, among other things, their wildfire protection plans.
When Suenram talks about permissive language, he means regulations that sayhomeowners “may” account for fire hazards, rather than “shall.”The difference in meaning is significant.
From his standpoint, counties and communities need to be more forceful with whatthey require people to do in the interface. If someone is going to build ahouse, they must account for ingress and egress in a way that fire fightingforces can get in and out of the property quickly and safely, Suenram said. Theyneed to have an adequate water supply to deal with protecting their home andthey must deal with defensible space.
The whole goal is to build a house and manage your property so a fire can burnthrough without consuming the home and without the presence of fire fighters, hesaid.
Fire size and intensity has increased over the last decade for a multitude ofreasons: global warming, clogged forests from decades of fire suppression, andon-going drought, just to name a few.
These bigger fires mean the interface is threatened more frequently. When fireofficials have to make a choice whether to send resources into the backcountryto fight fire or devote those same resources to defend homes and property, thechoice is clear and often more expensive.
In the backcountry you can give ground when tactics aren’t working. But when afire is barreling down over a ridge toward a subdivision, there’s no ground togive.
In Montana, state and federal agencies have devoted time and money towardeducating landowners who live in the interface. They’ve established grantprograms to help landowners deal with vegetation on their lands.
But the education and voluntary efforts only go as far as landowners are willingto go.
Byron Bonney is a forester with the Bitter Root Resource Conservation andDevelopment Area Inc., a non-profit group dedicated to forestry issues inwestern Montana. A lot of what Bonney does is work with landowners in theinterface to do vegetation management projects on their land in hopes ofreducing the fire risk.
The programs Bonney brings to landowners are funded by federal dollars allocatedto the state and then to the RC&D through grant programs. They’re cost-sharegrants that require the landowners to either front some of the money, use thevalue of the timber cut to off-set costs, or dedicate in-kind donations, whichis usually doing some of the work themselves.
And while these programs have been successful on some pieces of land, theyaren’t addressing the whole problem, Bonney said.
Bonney and the RC&D were also instrumental in the Bitterroot Valley fordeveloping a community wildfire protection plan. This plan is needed to securesome of the federal grants.
The plan was developed after the devastating fires of 2000, which burned morethan 350,000 acres in Ravalli County. The plan delineates the interface andidentifies where fuel reduction projects have occurred on both the federal andprivate land. And according the fire plan, the interface in Ravalli County isabout 100,000 acres in size.
“There’s just a lot of homes in the current interface that are in direstraits,” Bonney said.
Currently, 35 counties in Montana have community fire plans. Fourteen aredeveloping them and seven aren’t working on them at all. Most the counties notworking on a plan are in the northern part of the state, east of the Rockies.
The community fire plans are helpful in demonstrating to landowners andgovernment officials the dangers present in the interface, but people are stillmoving there without properly protecting their homes and property.
Counties don’t put restrictive language in the subdivision regulations aboutdevelopment in the interface because they don’t want to stop growth, Suenramsaid. County commissioners need to get past this and realize that it’s animportant health safety issue, he said. Zoning the interface is the solution, hesaid, because it will allow counties to require current and future structures tobe compliant with a set of standards that help protect them from fire.
So a solution may come out of the 2007 Montana Legislature. The bills SenateBill 51 and Legislative Counsel 223 and 342 have involved discussionsbetween many groups and agencies including the DNRC, Montana RealtorsAssociation, Montana Smart Growth Coalition and Montana Association of Counties.
Senate Bill 51 would require counties to address the interface in their growthpolicies and then include restrictions in their subdivision regulationsconcerning ingress and egress, defensible space and water supply to mitigate anyhazards from wildfire. The subdivision regulations only target new growth.
Then there is Legislative Counsel 223 and 342, which right now are bills withouta sponsor. In legislative wrangling, potential legislation goes through draftingprocess before drafts become official bills. The upshot of it is both of thesebills would attach a funding component to SB 51 as well as require counties tozone the interface.
The zoning would require existing homes to deal with the same hazard mitigationissues. If counties don’t delineate the interface, change their growth policyand subdivision regulations and zone the interface, they wouldn’t have access tothe state’s general fund for firefighting costs.
The loophole for counties is that they can make an assessment of their interfaceand if they determine there are no hazards present, then they don’t have tochange subdivision regulations or zone, said Mary Sexton, director of MontanaDepartment of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Glenn Oppel, government affairs director for the Montana Association ofRealtors, is optimistic that a bill with broad support can come out of thelegislative session.
Zoning is the key if counties and the state really want to have regulatorypowers.
“You can identify the WUI via your growth policy and then zone accordingly where you require all new development and probably existing development toconsider defensible space, ingress, egress and water supply,” Oppel said.
Bills are always adjusted and revised during the session, but the hope is thesebills can either be formed into one or come through in such a way that progressin dealing with the interface can be made, said Mary Sexton.
“But we all know if the legislature does nothing we’re going to have fireseasons like 2006 again,” she said. “I don’t think any of these billsare the perfect answer but I think they’re at least a step in the rightdirection.”
Implementing regulations like this will be a problem, said Phil Hathaway, countycommissioner from Sweet Grass County.
Last summer Hathaway and the rest of Sweet Grass County experienced the brunt ofMontana’s fire season. The Derby Fire burned more than 200,000 acres inStillwater and Sweet Grass Counties and destroyed 26 homes and 20 outbuildings.
Hathaway agrees that there is a problem in dealing with growth in the interface,but the solution isn’t burdening counties with more regulation and mandates.
“We have no way of going in there and forcing private landowners to cleanup their properties,” he said.
Counties can pass laws and implement zoning, but who’s going to go around andmake sure people are doing what they should? And where’s the money going to comefrom? Hathaway asked.
“Basically it’s an unfunded mandate,” he said.
And then what happens 10 years from now, when all the brush cleared out hasgrown back and the homes and property are in the same shape they’re in now?Hathaway asks.
“Then what do you do? You’ve got nothing to force them to do anything,”he said.
Hathaway looks toward the insurance companies. If people build in the interface,then their insurance rates should reflect the danger they’re in.
Another regulation the county has to enforce will only clog up the system withmore bureaucracy, he said. But this time, the state is going to hangfirefighting costs over the head of the counties as leverage to make them comply.
“I hate to see (the state) try this because it’s just going to put a lotmore burden on the counties and make it just that much harder to get thesubdivisions done that we have to get done,” Hathaway said.
None of the bills proposed having any funding attached to them. However, thestate is willing to help counties find funding to implement the new laws shouldthe pass, Harrington said.
“That’s something that we’re very cognizant of and very sensitive to,”he said.
Funding may come through grants from the state and other similar resources,Harrington said.
“The intent is not to exclude any counties from access to the general fundfor suppression bills.”