Big Sky’s wildfire heritage
By Bay Stephens EBS LOCAL EDITOR
This is the sixth installment of “Growing Pains,” an ongoing series centered on Big Sky’s growth, the challenges and potential opportunities it presents. Click here to read Part 5 of this series and search “Growing Pains” on this website to read prior installments.
BIG SKY – Around noon on May 12, a property manager using a torch to eliminate weeds and grasses up beyond the Beaver Creek Road gate started a wildfire. Gusty winds caused the flames to spread over a total of seven acres of hilly, sagebrush-covered terrain before the Big Sky, Gallatin Gateway and Yellowstone Club fire departments, along with the U.S. Forest Service were able to suppress the blaze.
With fresh snowmelt, green flora and frequent rainstorms, May is early for wildfires to start in Montana. Yet this instance shows how, when you add more people to an area like Big Sky, the risk of wildfire increases.
“Anytime you build more houses in an area that’s prone to wildfire, you’re adding more risk because you add that human factor in,” said BSFD Deputy Fire Chief Dustin Tetrault.
Adapted to wildfire
Wildfires are a natural occurrence in the American West, and the forests surrounding Big Sky are not excluded. Forests in the western U.S. are actually adapted to wildfires, and depend on fire for ecological health.
Before European settlers moved west, wildfires took place regularly but on smaller scales than today, leaving the forests a patchwork of areas that burned at different times. Some native tribes even used fire purposely, understanding its function in sustaining the natural world.
However, after a series of wildfires around the turn of the 20th century destroyed more homes than the states had ever seen, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a wildfire exclusion policy in 1913 that involved preventing and suppressing wildfire as much as possible, according to Jack Cohen, a leading scholar on wildfire ignition research. This policy of putting out fires as quickly as possible was predominant for the following four decades before it began recognizing fire as a historical and ecological factor in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“[That period] has produced fuel accumulations and arrangements that have enhanced the potential for the extensive areas of high-intensity wildland fires experienced in recent years,” Cohen writes in his article, “The Wildland-Urban Interface Problem,” published in Forest History Today.
In forests such as those around Big Sky, that have not burned in recent memory, the overcrowding of trees and increased dead and down timber due to pine beetle kill can ignite and set off a major conflagration, according to the Madison County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. In certain areas, such a stand replacement fire can consume thousands of acres.
Last year’s Bacon Rind and Wigwam fires, which torched 5,232 and 4,087 acres, respectively, took place in areas very similar to and not far from Big Sky. Both burned in the forest canopy, constituting a partial-stand replacement.
As more people live in and visit Big Sky, the risk of ignition increases. While the surrounding forest is historically adapted to wildfire, the question becomes whether or not Big Sky’s residents and subdivisions are so adapted.
Tetrault says there’s a range of grades he’d give developments throughout Big Sky, with some subdivisions scoring As and Bs and others, Fs. Overall, he gives Big Sky’s wildfire preparedness a C average.
“What we’ve done really well is that we have enough space that we haven’t got down to building zero-lot lines [developments] or these dense cluster houses,” Tetrault said. “We’ve kept our risk isolated so that if we get a big fire and we get one structure that burns down, more than likely that may be an isolated incident because there are not a lot of structures around it.”
He added that he fears denser subdivisions in the future could increase risk. Although building practices have improved, homes are still being constructed with flammable siding and roofing in Big Sky, and many older houses are more likely to go up in flames, he said.
With upwards of 2,500 structures yet to be built in Big Sky, Tetrault and BSFD are pushing hard for these to be built to withstand fire on their own.
“When it comes down to it, when you get these large-scale fires like we’ve seen in California these last couple years, the firefighters aren’t fighting fire,” he said. “Life safety is No. 1 for us so we’re getting people out. We can’t take the time to fight [multiple] structure fires when lives are at stake. Our big focus is going to be getting people out of there, not the structures.”
Homes and subdivisions built and designed to withstand wildfire will mitigate the financial, social, economic and cultural impacts the community faces, Tetrault said.
Who foots the bill of wildfire?
Although the costs of fire suppression largely come out of state and federal coffers, the burden of recovery from the destruction to property in the wake of a wildfire falls primarily on the local community.
“When you’re looking at the full range of wildfire cost, not just the short-term suppression costs, but also long term costs related to tourism revenue, property values, infrastructure repair, roadside maintenance, the vast majority of that cost is borne by the local community,” said Headwaters Economics Research and Policy Analyst Kimiko Barrett, who is the project lead for the nonprofit thinktank’s wildfire research.
“Although a community doesn’t pay for immediate suppression of a wildfire, they are going to pay for long-term rehabilitation,” Barrett added.
Unlike many peer communities that stretch into wildfire-prone landscapes, such as Boulder, Colorado, Big Sky is not able to require homeowners to conduct regular wildfire mitigation on their property, though Big Sky has more wildfire exposure than most communities in the West.
Such stipulations would require maintaining defensible space around a home by managing vegetation around one’s property, as well as mandate that building materials anticipate a wildfire event.
What sets Big Sky apart is its high percentage of those owning second homes and amenity owners who rent their homes for services such as VRBO, according to Barrett.
“You have a lot of absentee homeowners and when that comes to wildfires and mitigation that can be a very significant challenge,” Barrett said.
Tetrault added that guests staying in a home on the short-term rental market also complicate evacuation scenarios as they may not know where to go in such an instance. Evacuation also brings in the conundrum of mass egress from Big Sky in an emergency situation.
One way in, one way out
Big Sky’s routes of egress are limited, being either U.S. Highway 191 or Jack Creek Road, which has a private, gated section before becoming a narrow, public dirt road through the Jack Creek drainage. It can’t accommodate commercial vehicles and is also prone to spring landslides.
“As far as an evacuation operation [on Jack Creek Road], if we had [Lone Mountain Trail] compromised, could we do it? Yes,” Tatrault said. “Would it take a long time? Absolutely. … Taking into account that wildfires can move up to 6 mph and every second counts, it would be extremely difficult to get everyone out in time.”
In an emergency the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office would oversee an evacuation, according to BSFD Fire Chief William Farhat, adding that the capacity the roads could handle is a widely recognized concern.
“Our road system is fragile,” said Farhat, pointing to issues that could derail heavily traveled Highway 191.
“A car accident can block the road for hours, a rockslide could block it for days, a washout could block it for weeks,” Farhat said. Although a washout hasn’t happened in years, he cited how a rockslide on Colorado’s I-70 corridor in Glenwood Canyon severely impacted travel.
“There are ways to improve transportation but they’re extraordinarily expensive,” Farhat said. “… In Montana, we don’t have the access to that [type of funding]. If you look at Big Sky, the solutions are not evident.”
Despite the risks of wildfire and egress in the growing community, public safety professionals in Gallatin and Madison counties have community wildfire protection and pre-disaster mitigation plans for Big Sky.
The Big Sky Fire Department has been proactive in the face of Big Sky’s staggering growth. Tetrault was hired specifically for community outreach; his full title is actually Deputy Chief of Community Risk Management. He is building an all-encompassing risk-reduction plan for Big Sky.
His goal is to form Big Sky into a fire-adapted community. This not only involves encouraging that new structures and subdivisions are designed with wildfire in mind, but also working with property owners’ existing structures to optimize the survivability of their homes.
On June 11 and 12, the BSFD will be conducting fuel-mitigation work at area properties, collecting debris, chipping it and hauling it away for people. Tetrault will also be meeting with homeowners and making recommendations as to how they can better prepare their homes for wildfires.
Creating defensible space around structures also allows them and other fire-suppression professionals to more efficiently and effectively suppress fire in the case of a large-scale wildfire.
“We need to get out of that mindset that, ‘It’s not going to happen to us,’” Tetrault said.
In light of Big Sky’s limited egress capacity, Patrick Lonergan, Chief of Emergency Management for Gallatin County, urges residents to be prepared for an emergency event, either to be self-sufficient in case they have to stay put, or prepared with a plan that enables them to evacuate as soon as county officials advise them to leave.
According to Lonergan, most civilian injuries in wildfires across the nation occur when people don’t leave when they’re told, instead deciding to weather the storm, but then change their mind when they realize the threat is more serious than they expected. When they finally do leave, smoke obscures the road or trees block it, often resulting in vehicle accidents that can impede firefighting teams.
“We want them to leave while it’s safe so they don’t end up in a situation where it’s not safe to leave and they don’t feel comfortable staying put,” Lonergan said.
Another challenge in an emergency situation is notifying everyone about what is happening and the best way to stay safe, Lonergan said, which is why Gallatin County has a community notification system. He encourages residents in Big Sky to register at alerts.readygallatin.com, which allows Lonergan’s team to send out targeted messages to people in specific locations.
Wildfire must be recognized as a reality of life in Big Sky, according to Kimiko Barrett of Headwater Economics.
wildfire is inevitable. It’s coming. It’s just a matter of when,” Barrett said.
“[Big Sky needs] to prepare now by managing their home and property and
building to a higher wildfire-resistant standard.”
Visit readygallatin.com/mitigation to view the final draft of the updated Gallatin County Hazard Mitigation Plan and to provide feedback by the June 19 deadline.