Gazette Opinion: Policy changes needed to help fight wildfire

Gazette Opinion: Policy changes needed to help fight wildfire

6 January 2009

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USA — With snow and ice blanketing most of our state in recent weeks, few Montanans have given much thought to wildfires. Fortunately for the rest of us, a legislative interim committee spent a full year researching wildland fire policy and formulating recommendations to help protect lives and property.

The bipartisan committee endorsed about 30 legislative bill drafts, most of which don’t involve increased state funding. The committee, chaired by Sen. John Cobb of Augusta, focused on prevention and shared responsibility. For example:

• Senate Bill 144 provides for implementing statewide building standards for residences in the wildland-urban interface, the most costly area for fire suppression and the area with highest risk of loss to life and homes. The wildland-urban interface refers to rural or forested areas where subdivisions and other city-like development has taken place.

• Senate Bill 75 would revise state fire policy to stipulate that homeowners are responsible for maintaining their homes and surrounding property in ways that reduce the risk of destruction by wildfire.

• Senate Bill 131 requires the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to designate the wildland-urban interface in each county.

• House Bill 165 increases state funding for emergencies from a maximum of $16 million per biennium to $25 million, but only for wildfires.

• House Joint Resolution 7 calls on the federal government to mount “safe and aggressive initial attack on wildfires on all federal lands that have the potential to move to state or private land. …”

• Several draft bills would require insurance carriers to provide information on fire risk reduction to their customers and to offer discounts to customers in the wildland-urban interface who meet fire risk reduction standards. Another bill would offer tax credits to homeowners who take defined fire risk reduction actions.

We call on lawmakers to support the Fire Suppression Interim Committee’s proposals that would help prevent and reduce the destruction caused by wildfires. We join the committee in recognizing that Montana must prepare in advance for the big fires that are certainly in our future. The committee’s final report astutely sums up Montana’s fire risk:

“Wildfire in Montana could be included with death and taxes as the only sure things in life,” the report says. “There will be years when the right combination of moisture and storm frequency, with a little luck thrown in, result in fewer and more manageable fires. But on balance, the signs point to long fire seasons and extreme events like those for which the years 1910, 1988, 2000, 2004 and 2007 are infamous. Fire year 2007, in all its dry, hot, smoky glory, may just be the shape of things to come.”

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