USA — The Montana Legislature, hamstrung several times in recent years by the higher-than-expected cost of fighting wildland fires, is taking an active approach to the problem.
A special session last fall named an interim committee to gather public opinion, develop strategies and, eventually, write laws aimed at easing what has over a long period of time become a bad situation.
The panel, called the Fire Suppression Interim Committee, has held hearings, and the public comment period ended at the first of this month. A couple of committee members will hold a hearing March 4 among fire-suppression contractors to hear recommendations and complaints from professionals in the field.
The committee’s assignment is to complete its study by mid-September, then to report to the 2009 Legislature with an eye toward passing legislation.
The issue is worth considerable attention because, just for example, 1,763 fires last summer scorched 740,000 acres, and it cost the state $43 million to fight them.
That’s only 40 percent of the total cost, however, and most of the balance came from the federal government.
As has been noted many times by authorities more knowledgeable than the Tribune, the dire situation in Montana’s woodlands is a self-inflicted wound from which there is no easy recovery.
A combination of factors more than a century of putting out fires, successive dry, hot summers, and residents building their dream homes in the woods has created a volatile situation.
A large share of firefighting money and effort now is focused on a small portion of land: that on which structures have been built, usually in the vicinity of communities.
Because of the presence of people and their homes and businesses, firefighters correctly make the “wildland-urban interface” (the populated but fire-prone margins of communities) their top priority in the event of fire.
And because of shrinking Forest Service budgets (see Tuesday’s editorial), this often occurs at the expense of properly managing forests and fires farther from populated areas.
Lawmakers are considering ways to put more preventative responsibility on owners of WUI structures, maybe requiringthings such as clearing space around buildings and using fire-resistant materials as many areas already require.
It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, especially because the rest of us are footing the bill and the firefighters are risking their lives to protect those owners’ little pieces of paradise.