Who pays for wildfires?

Who pays for wildfires?

12 January 2008

published by www.helenair.com

Helena, MT, USA — Even as a rare January wildfire charred thousand of acres near Billings, a group of lawmakers wrangled the hot-button issue of how Montana pays for wildfires, who pays and how government might regulate future building in fire-prone areas.

Rep. Bill Wilson, D-Great Falls, who leads part of the Fire Suppression Interim Committee, said during a break in Friday’s meeting that he hopes the panel will craft a whole new branch of law dealing exclusively with firefighting and home-building in wooded, rural areas.

“We as a state need to get more involved in crafting some solutions,” he said.

Montana’s 2007 fire season cost roughly $40 million, filled many cities with smoke for weeks and prompted an emergency special session of the Montana Legislature in September to allocate $82 million to cover firefighting costs until this July.

But finding ways of dealing with fires — particularly fires threatening homes — will be difficult. Some solutions, like outlawing homebuilding in the most fire-dangerous places, are politically impossible, Wilson said, even if they might, in certain situations, be reasonable.

A series of speakers outlined some of the problems: Montana has no law requiring people who live in the woods to keep their homes and property in a condition that might resist an approaching wildfire. The state assesses a modest $45-per-year fee to people who live in forested areas for wildfire protection. Such a sum is so small, some speakers said, it amounts to almost a complete shift of the burden of wildfire protection from the people who actually live in the woods to the majority of taxpayers who do not.

“Why should I pay? Why should my grandmother in a rest home pay?” asked Tom Futral, a Great Falls businessman who sells home fire protection kits for about $5,000. Futral hinted at another element to the dilemma: Many of the homes firefighters work to save are second homes or fancy cabins.

Futral called such homes part of a “lavish lifestyle” state taxpayers are subsidizing.

Local governments have three ways of potentially guiding growth in wooded areas, according to documents submitted by Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties. Regulations for subdivisions give some control over how growth occurs. Zoning is another option and, finally, counties can adopt building codes.

But all of those existing rules have problems. Once a subdivision is adopted, the county has no more control over building in subdivision.

Zoning, said Mary Sexton, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation which oversees state firefighting, is a “non-starter.” In almost all counties, it’s very difficult for commissioners to impose county-wide zoning.

Blattie and his group proposed a new kind of law just for fire-prone areas that would be similar to the way governments control building in floodplains. His idea is to allow local governments to identify the so-called “wildland urban interface” and formulate rules for building in the area. Counties would be able to enforce the rules.

State Forester Bob Harrington said he’d like to see some kind of enforceable regulation, not just recommendations to homeowners.

Patty Gude of Headwaters Economics, a research firm in Bozeman, presented a study to the committee showing that, if current building trends continue, Montana can expect to see more than 86,000 homes in fire-prone sprawl by 2025, compared with more than 55,000 now.

Glenn Oppel, government affairs director for the Montana Association of Realtors, said his group favored a plan in which the state wouldn’t enforce building practices, only make recommendations. Oppel also questioned whether homes themselves were driving up firefighting costs.

Several committee members questioned Oppel’s suggestion.

“What we’re looking at is how we’re spending our resources,” said Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula. One of the biggest drives behind the state’s growing wildfire bill is the cost of defending homes embedded in the woods.

Wilson said she’d like to see the insurance industry also get involved in the discussion. Sen. Rick Laible, R-Darby, said that perhaps banks, which loan money to build homes in fire-prone areas, might also be part of the mix.

The committee is in the very early stages of crafting potential bills for the 2009 Legislature.

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