Wildfire expo examines the importance of adapting to wildfire trends

By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer

BELGRADE – According to one of the top fire suppression officials in the state, there are three troubling trends developing in the West: fire seasons are longer and more destructive due to climate change, building construction has increased in the wildland-urban interface, and the fire service is aging.

At the first-ever Southwest Montana Wildfire Expo held in Belgrade on June 15, Mike DeGrosky, chief of fire and aviation with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, spoke about these trends in hopes that education would lead to better wildfire preparation and greater safety for firefighting forces.

“We stopped fighting fire in November and we started fighting fire in February,” DeGrosky said of longer fire seasons in the West.

At the same time, the wildland-urban interface has seen a significant increase in construction. “Let’s be honest, we in Montana are not known for our land-use planning,” De Grosky said, adding that residential developments and residences dot fire-prone environments all across Montana.

“When fires occur in those places … we in fire services expend very, very substantial amounts of taxpayer money protecting unprepared structures [and] we expose our firefighters to enormous risk,” said DeGrosky, whose agency is charged with directly protecting 5 million acres of land in Montana, and cooperates with local fire services to provide coverage for another 45 million acres.

DeGrosky then spoke about last year’s deadly Twisp River Fire, which burned in a wildland-urban interface area of north-central Washington.

A Forest Service engine staffed by four firefighters drove through a canyon up a winding, narrow road while responding to the rapidly growing fire. They determined it wasn’t safe to engage it from that location and turned around to return to their safety zone.

Thick smoke enveloped the road, obscuring visibility causing them to crash their vehicle. The fire overran the firefighters, killing three and critically burning another.

“That’s a scenario that absolutely haunts me because it’s a familiarity,” DeGrosky said. “It’s a situation that young men and women in my program encounter every single summer.”

DeGrosky is also concerned about aging volunteer fire departments charged with the physically demanding task of battling wildfires. “Fire departments that used to have 20 or 30 members in their 20s and 30s now have eight or 10 members in their 50s, 60s, and often their 70s,” he said.

People affected by these trends aren’t without tools to mitigate their impact, however. At the expo, DeGrosky urged residential developers, realtors, landscapers, consulting foresters, architects, arborists and insurance agents to do their jobs with fire-adapted communities in mind.

DeGrosky describes a fire-adapted community as that which “can survive a wildland fire even if the fire service is unable to intervene.”

Before turning over the podium to others who discussed ways to build and retrofit fire-wise communities, De Grosky offered a tip stemming from the 20 years he spent as a consultant in the private sector. “There is a big niche to be filled out there for people who can advise homeowners and provide services to those homeowners,” he said.

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Robert Dillon, who has been an arborist for 20 years and a firefighter for 18, said it’s much easier to prepare a home for wildfire long before there’s one in the area—and it’s better yet to remove vegetation around a home site before the house and utilities are in place.

He noted that cost-share grants are available through the state of Montana to help homeowners cover the cost of fuels treatments.

Dillon said he’s responded to fires where firefighters are “scrambling to [create] defensible space” with a fire rapidly approaching. “Fire folks should be working on the fire, not trying to do defensible space,” Dillon said, adding that he was once advised at a wildland-urban interface class to look at structures as fuel sources rather than homes.

Montana State University Extension Horticulture Associate Toby Day opened his talk about firewise vegetation by pointing out that although some plants are fire-resistant, no plant is fireproof.

Day listed some plants that tend to fuel wildfires—those with high oil or resin content like sagebrush and juniper as well as most pine trees—before listing plants that tend to slow fire spread.

Day said many deciduous trees like ash, aspen, birch, cottonwood, poplars and maples as well as shrubs in the cherry, lilac, plum and rose families tend not to burn very well.

A complete list of these plants as well as groundcover and herbaceous plants is available at msuextension.org/publications/YardandGarden/MT200101AG.pdf

Day recommended that homeowners and property caretakers remove dry grasses from around their home and keep the immediate surroundings well watered. “Green grass doesn’t burn very well, so I’m a big proponent of well-irrigated turf grass around homes,” he said.

In a post-expo interview, Patrick Lonergan, the Gallatin County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator, said the last long-range prediction he heard called for an average season in the Northern Rockies. “We still have a lot of fires in an average season,” he added.

The area between Big Sky, Ennis and West Yellowstone has already seen a handful of wildfires this summer, including two actively burning in the Gravelly Range outside of Ennis, several small fires—both lightning- and human-caused—outside of Big Sky and four in Yellowstone National Park.

Lonergan said Gallatin County has been lucky that it hasn’t yet suffered something like Park County’s Pine Creek Fire of 2012 that burned more than 8,500 acres and claimed five homes.

That year, 1.1 million acres burned across the state and 462 structures were lost, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.

Lonergan said the goal of the wildland fire expo was to motivate Montanans to take a proactive approach to fire readiness. “Wildfire’s really hard to mitigate when it happens,” he said. “When the fire starts and it’s heading toward your house, oftentimes it’s too late to do the work that could save [it].”

Resources for developing fire-adapted communities

firesafemt.org – Includes a firesafe construction guide that outlines ignition-resistant construction materials, fire-resistant plant species and fuels management programs

dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/forestry/fire-and-aviation/fire-prevention-and-preparedness – Contains a number of guides about building and living in the wildland-urban interface for homeowners, planners and fire professionals.

firewise.org – An interagency organization that shares information with homeowners and fire and emergency personnel about how to protect homes and communities from wildfire, how houses ignite, and what you can do to prepare if a wildfire is quickly approaching.