USA — After19 firefighters died in Arizona last summer, Sonny Stiger went on a rampage to change firefighting.
Stiger’s chosen battlefield is Lewis and Clark County in Montana, where a controversial resolution seeks to free firefighters of the expectation that they would die defending homes.
The resolution could have an impact in Colorado, as this July the state recognizes the 20 years since the deaths of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain outside of Grand Junction.
“Our firefighters do heroic and commendable work, but I don’t think that anyone should be expected to sacrifice their life for property,” said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction.
Those who died on Storm King Mountain in 1994 weren’t protecting homes, but many firefighters are starting to speak openly about where the limits are for them.
Arizona, Montana, Colorado and California have all had historic fatal fires since 1949. Still, Stiger knows of no other state that has considered, even on the county level, a resolution like the one adopted by Lewis and Clark County.
The National Intergency Fire Center, in its 2014 Interagency Standards for Fire, is the only organization that comes close, said Chris Mehl, with the Montana-based research group Headwaters Economics.
In its standards, NIFC makes clear that federal firefighters should not be expected to protect homes outside of federal jurisdiction. Stiger’s resolution impacts county fire protection districts, which is where the burden of home protection falls in the event of fire on county land.
Stiger sees it as a universal culture shift.
“They cannot be expected to go into a community and essentially commit suicide,” said King, who added that he passes Storm King Mountain on a daily basis while driving.
Stiger, who is bow-legged and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, started firefighting in 1959. He worked in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, and later as a fire and fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service fire behavior analyst, he investigated some of the deadliest fires of the 1990s.
Death is never worth a “pile of sticks and bricks,” Stiger said. Most firefighters agree death isn’t worth a home, isn’t worth saving the Spotted Owl. But defending land, property and lives is at the center of the firefighting creed, and changing that expectation will take more than just a shift in culture. It also mandates a shift in what the taxpaying public expects.
After a devastating 2012 fire season that destroyed hundreds of homes in Colorado, the state considered changes to taxes and fire mitigation requirements for residents. Gov. John Hickenlooper convened a Task Force on Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health, which suggested the state consider extra taxes for homeowners in wilderness areas.
The state has yet to implement any of the task force’s proposed measures, and to date there is nothing in Colorado such as the resolution in Montana.
But after 20 years of unprecedented fires from California to Colorado, Stiger is hardly alone in advocating for change. Last week, hundreds of fire professionals gathered in Missoula to address the West’s destructive wildfire activity.
The theme of change struck a chord with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, who spoke to hundreds Thursday in Missoula.
Tidwell, a former firefighter, has watched wildfires evolve into catastrophic events that plague the West over the past 10 years.
“We have to accept that what we are seeing today is the new norm,” Tidwell said of so-called megafires, like the High Park Fire in Colorado, which regularly kill people, destroying thousands of acres and hundreds of homes.
After a spate of megafires across the West, change has begun. Cities ravaged by fire have changed their fire codes; homeowners have rebuilt homes that are better designed to survive a fire. The Forest Service has been pushing local fire mitigation programs and public education.
But for a few Montana-based experts like Stiger, those changes aren’t enough.
“Nineteen young men died for sticks and bricks,” Stiger said of the crew that died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. “Enough is enough. We’ve got to stop it some way.”
Stiger is adamant that “stopping it” doesn’t mean letting homes burn in the midst of wildfire. Instead, he hopes that the resolution becomes an impetus for homeowners to clean up their properties and do fire mitigation. Some Montanans think Stiger’s resolution is ground-breaking; others say it’s a symbolic gesture.
FireSafe Montana, a nonprofit fire awareness group of which Stiger is a board member, proposed the measure in Lewis and Clark County in November. The resolution passed. Two other counties have adopted it, and Stiger said more will jump “on the band wagon.”
On June 3, Stiger will present his firefighter safety awareness campaign “Enough is Enough,” of which the resolution is a part, to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
As the resolution catches hold across the state, opinions differ on its purpose. Critics have called it a measure that absolves firefighters from protecting homes.
Susie Good Geise, a Lewis and Clark County commissioner, is married to a volunteer firefighter and voted for the resolution, but she still thinks it changes very little when it comes to firefighting. What’s more, very few people know about it, she said.
“Frankly, this doesn’t change much,” she said.
But Helena Fire Chief Sean Logan is fiercely proud of Stiger’s resolution. It’s a culture-changer, “no question,” he said
For rural fire chiefs scattered across the state, the resolution means clearing the air with homeowners: If people think fire crews will go to any length to save their homes, well, they won’t, said Rocky Infanger, a fire chief and board member for FireSafe Montana.
Protecting homes from wildfire has rapidly become the most costly aspect of firefighting. Defending homes from flames takes up a third of the Forest Service’s dwindling fire suppression budget. Although not everyone agrees, Stiger believes that the bulk of firefighter deaths from “burnovers” happened when crews were protecting homes.
And it’s a problem that’s not likely to go away.
Across the country, more people are moving into the wilderness. Next to California and Texas, Colorado has the greatest number of people living in the semi-wilderness, known as the wildland urban interface, where fires have been at their most deadly.
A recent report by CoreLogic, a nonprofit data group, found that 373,600 Colorado homes are in red zones, or wildfire areas. Colorado also has plenty of potential to expand into red zones, and few counties have more room to grow than Larimer.
Even after devastating fires in Colorado, the Forest Service and firefighters have struggled to get homeowners to mitigate or remove some trees and bush from their properties to reduce fuel for a wildfire.
Wildfires in Colorado have inspired different responses.
After the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs in 2012, the City Council passed sweeping fire code changes for hillside neighborhoods. Boulder County limited the size of new homes rebuilt after the devastating Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010. Larimer County, which for years has worked with rural residents on mitigation, did none of these things after the 2012 High Park Fire burned 259 homes west of Fort Collins.
The state Legislature also started to take action and passed the Colorado Homeowners Insurance Reform Act of 2013, as well as a bill sponsored by King that created a Colorado Firefighting Air Corps.
Almost two years after High Park, the Glacier View Meadows subdivision, which lost 60 homes to the fire, voted on increasing the local mill levy to pay for full-time fire crews on the mostly volunteer department. The measure was struck down in a May vote.
Their own money
For Travis Barker, a hunting outfitter in the northern reaches of Lewis and Clark County, Stiger’s resolution is impractical.
Barker and his neighbors in Augusta, population around 274, depend on the local volunteer fire department for all their medical services and most of their fire protection. The rural town is just shy of 100 miles south of Glacier National Park, and most people are in what Barker calls “the eye-candy business.”
Locals like Barker, who owns a $1.5 million ranch, can’t afford to have fire scar their ranchers or hunting outfitter properties and ruin the big draw to rural Montana: natural beauty.
“So everything we do really depends on a pretty place,” Barker said. “If our place gets burned, then its unlivable, and we’re out of business.”
Barker also firmly believes he and his neighbors deserve what their tax dollars buy them assurance that fire crews will be there to defend their homes.
“But it’s as simple as contract. Firemen are on the payroll, police are on the payroll,” Barker said. “What are the parameters? One professional staying until he either gets the guy or the guy gets him. And he’s protecting the citizens. And then the other professional just leaves. When things get hot, they leave.”
Rural Montanans are used to being cut off from the benefits of living in a metropolis. Barker has invested $10,000 in water tanks, hoses and other firefighting equipment for his ranch. If a fire comes, he and his neighbors will fight it, with or without trained crews.
“Lots of these people, they would come for no money and just stay until they’re dead. Just like if there were a fire,” he said.
It’s a mentality that local volunteer Fire Chief Charlie Taylor shares. As a firefighter he appreciates the spirit of the county resolution, but he, too, is unsure where to draw the line.
“Are we going to put our people at risk to defend something that isn’t defensible? Well, I don’t know,” he said. “If I’m in charge, chief on a fire, I’m not going to risk somebody’s life over something that is indefensible If it’s somewhat defensible, that’s a different story.”
Stiger and the FireSafe Montana board have spent months struggling to define their resolution to concerned homeowners and firefighters. Although it was adopted in November, the board met last week with firefighters to hash through exactly what they think it means.
Everyone had different ideas.
But for Stiger, it comes back to a shared responsibility for fire prevention.
“You don’t care, we don’t either,” said Bud Peterson, a fire warden for Custer County, whose commissioners refused to adopt the resolution.