Live wild, live free

Live wild, live free

3 February 2008

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USA — But ‘frontier living’ is increasing cost of fire protection for Flathead County.

This aerial view in fall 2007 shows the Eagle’s Crest subdivision being developed in the mountains south of Lakeside. As development spreads into more remote areas of the county, fire-prevention measures become much more important because of the high cost of structure protection during fire season. Photo: Karen Nichols/Daily Inter LakeFor many people, the picture of Montana is a home tucked away in the woods, an illusion of frontier living. But as development spreads into what’s known as the “wildland urban interface,” the burden on county resources — and county taxpayers — skyrockets.

“This is a huge issue,” said Mark Peck, director of Flathead County’s Office of Emergency Services. “It’s probably one of the biggest from the overall impact on the county.”

The wildland urban interface, as defined by Flathead County’s draft subdivision regulations, is where structures and other human developments meet and intermingle with undeveloped wild land and vegetative fuels.

A study by Headwaters Economics, which determines existing wildfire risk based on the number of square miles of the wildland urban interface with homes, ranks Flathead County No. 1 in Montana and No. 8 of any county in the Western United States.

Research by Headwaters Economics, a research company out of Bozeman, shows that interface development of 7,846 homes exists within 60.6 square miles of Flathead County, leaving the county with 223.2 square miles of undeveloped wildlands.

Flathead County’s situation is hardly unique in the state. Montana has 31,394 residences in its wildland urban interface, of which 24 percent are seasonal homes or cabins. Montana ranks sixth among Western states in the number of homes built in forested areas next to public wildlands.

Although the county has a large number of homes built in the urban interface, the potential for future development is what concerns officials the most.

According to the Office of Inspector General, protecting private property from forest fires in the United States has consumed between 50 percent and 95 percent of all firefighting costs in recent years.

The Forest Service estimates that the cost of protecting private property from wildfires is as high as $1 billion each year. If just half of the interface is developed in the future, annual firefighting costs could reach $4 billion. The Forest Service’s average annual budget is currently about $4.5 billion.

Within Flathead County, 39 percent of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s fire protection program is within the wildland urban interface. In 2005, 66 percent of fires suppressed occurred in the interface. Fighting fires in the interface costs 49 percent more than battling a wildfire that doesn’t threaten private property.

“The cost is quite a bit more expensive because of the equipment you need and also because of the complexities associated with fighting fire in and among homes,” said Steve Frye, operations manager for the Northwest Land Office of the DNRC. “Wildland firefighting in the interface is probably the single largest change in firefighting in the last five to 10 years.”

Flathead County spent more than $400,000 fighting fires in 2007, but reimbursements from state and federal agencies likely will bring that total down to $300,000.

“The problem is that it changes the whole dynamic of wildland firefighting,” Peck said. “In areas where we’d be using wildland fire tactics, now we throw into the fray homes and people and the cost skyrockets.”

Both Peck and Frye said that the 2007 fire season is a taste of what is to come as development spreads.

“We have an increasing threat, limited resources and no rules to mitigate the problems,” Peck said.

The county relies heavily on rural fire departments to help with structure protection when wildfire threatens private property, but fire departments are having a harder and harder time recruiting enough personnel to meet the growing need.

“It’s really tough to cover this much area with rural fire departments,” Peck said. “We keep loading more and more on these volunteers. That’s why we jumped in and paid people [to be on call] this year. None of them got rich, but at least they got some compensation for the time they put in.

“Another part is companies letting folks go. The impact of 300 firefighters not at their jobs is huge. We had a lot of companies step up and let their employees help out.”

When it comes to emergency response, Peck said Flathead County is in better shape than most places because of the quality of responders. Although 2007 was a record year for fire activity, no homes were lost in the Flathead.

And, more importantly, no firefighters died in the line of duty. Firefighter safety weighs heavily on the minds of managers such as Peck and Fry. Neither is willing to unnecessarily risk lives to protect a home in the forest.

“When you build your home out in the middle of nowhere, if you don’t have an expectation of danger, shame on you,” Peck said. “We’ll do what we can as responders, but I won’t risk the hair of one firefighter to protect a home where the landowners have not taken the steps to have a proper road, that haven’t prepped their area. There are situations where we’ll just have to say, ‘You’re on your own.’”

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