By Dustin Tetrault EBS CONTRIBUTOR
Last year, three large wildfires burned dangerously close to Big Sky. The Bacon Rind Fire to the south and the Monument and Wigwam Fires to the west were all large, intense fires that burned nearly 20,000 acres in total. Their elevation, terrain and fuels were similar to that of Big Sky’s.
With the imminent change in seasons, it is time to start thinking about the wildland fire season again.
As development continues to boom in Big Sky, we need to ask ourselves: Are we building a resilient community? Can our community withstand the economic, social and cultural impacts of a large-scale wildfire?
New research points to why and how homes burn in wildfires. The vast majority of homes ignite due to embers that land on, or embed in, flammable materials on or in a home. Embers can travel more than a mile ahead of a wildfire front. Once one home has ignited, the fire spreads from house to house, resulting in large-scale conflagration fires like we have seen in California in recent years.
Today’s wildfires are more disastrous for a variety of reasons—a warming climate, a century of fire suppression and fuel accumulation, and because we are putting more people and homes in harm’s way. In Big Sky, the majority of new development is conducted in the moderate to high wildfire risk areas, known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI). We have a golden opportunity to make a stand and be smarter about how we are building and placing these structures in the WUI.
Fortunately, a decade of research, post-fire analyses and laboratory experiments have led to new science on how to avoid such disasters and build wildfire-resilient communities.
It starts with where and how we build homes.
A few simple, affordable modifications to a home’s roof, walls, windows, deck and landscaping can be the difference between the home’s survival or demise during a wildfire. For example, home survival increases when homes are built with ember-resistant, finer-mesh attic vents, noncombustible gutters and fire-resistant decking. Maintaining a noncombustible landscaping zone immediately around the home and conducting general maintenance such as cleaning out gutters, cleaning pine litter off of the roof and removing lawn debris can reduce the likelihood of embers igniting the home.
A study released in 2018 by Headwaters Economics found the cost of constructing a home to such standards was roughly the same as a typical home. Using wildfire-resistant materials can also reduce maintenance needs and have a longer lifespan compared to traditional building materials.
Too often we believe our community will never face wildfire, but such willful blindness does us all a disservice. When flammable homes are built in wildfire-prone areas, taxpayers end up shouldering the burden, economies are disrupted, and people and wildlife suffer.
We have the knowledge, technology and power to avoid wildfire disasters through better building practices, planning and individual preparedness. Let’s get started.
Join us for Community Wildfire Preparedness Day in Big Sky at the Lone Peak Brewery in the upstairs foyer on Saturday, May 4, from 1:00-5:00 p.m. Meet local wildfire experts from the Montana Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, Gallatin County, Madison County, Big Sky Fire Department and Montana State University Extension Fire Service Training School. We will also air the acclaimed documentary, “Era of Megafires,” that has been featured all over the country. A portion of cash generated by pint sales will go to the Keep Montana Green Association to Prevent Wildfires. So bring your family out for a great educational experience and have some fun.
Dustin Tetrault is the Deputy Fire Chief of Community Risk Management at Big Sky Fire Department and serves in a multitude of roles on wildland fires and home wildfire risk mitigation throughout Montana.