Firesafe conference depicts smoky future

Firesafe conference depicts smoky future

28 February 2008

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 Coming summers will bring more and bigger wildfires to the Northern Rockies. But it also will bring fewer firefighters, less equipment for them to use, and more and more homes to protect in flammable landscapes.

That’s the message spelled out Tuesday by climate and firefighting experts at a conference at the Bozeman Holiday Inn.

“We’ve got a lot less of the toys we need to do the job we’re doing out there,” said Wally Bennett, a veteran commander of a Type I incident command team, the type of force that tackles large and complex blazes.

Bennett was one of the speakers at the three-day conference organized by FireSafe Montana, a fledgling nonprofit group that is trying to motivate landowners, county governments, developers and other entities to do more to protect private land before wildfire reaches it.

Several years ago, Bennett said, firefighting teams had 32 large retardant planes available to them. Last year, they had 16.

The number of 20-person hand teams has declined from roughly 750 to about 450 over the same time period, he said, and that number is likely to fall further.

“There’s not enough to go around,” he said.

That’s partly because a rookie firefighter can earn about the same pay flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Meanwhile, a warming climate is bringing earlier snowmelt along with hotter, drier summers, said Faith Anne Heisch, a climate researcher who works with Steve Running, the University of Montana professor who was part of the Nobel-prize winning International Panel on Climate Change.

Since 1986, the fire season in the West has grown 78 days longer, six times as many acres burn annually, and there have been four times as many fires of 1,000 acres or more, compared to a 10-year average, she said.

“We anticipate fire seasons are going to be longer and more severe,” she said.

Plus, the number of homes in the wildland urban interface continues to grow.

“The development of the urban interface” has been the biggest change in firefighting in the past 15 to 20 years, said Steve Frye, another veteran fire commander. That means fires are “threatening more communities and higher values.”

Accordingly, wildland firefighters are having a national discussion over the appropriate level of federal protection to offer private property.

“A great debate over the past year would be putting it mildly,” Frye said.

But with increasing fire threats and a shrinking pool of firefighting resources to tap, gut-wrenching decisions lie in the future, Bennett said.

For a long time, firefighters have had to make decisions n based on road access, fuels, water availability and other factors — about which homes to protect when the flames arrive.

In the future, “we may have to making decisions on which community to protect,” Bennett said.

That’s where organizations like FireSafe can play a critical role, said its Montana president, Pat McKelvey.

The goal is to get community members working together, involving citizens, planners, developers, homeowners associations, local fire departments and others. The group offers expertise on reducing fire dangers and can help secure grants for fuel reduction projects. Several states already have established FireSafe councils, McKelvey said.

If homeowners prepare their property in advance of a fire, the odds improve that firefighters will stick around to help defend it.

“It’s your risk,” McKelvey said. “They’re your assets.”

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