Fire Prevention Plans: “Almost impossible unless we have a different mindset”

Huge kudos to Missoulian/Ravalli Republic reporter David Erickson for one of the best, factual and most candid looks at the issue of home/community wildfire protection, which appeared in today’s paper. Honestly, I have to believe that one of the reasons this article is so complete and interesting is because the reporter must have taped the entire conversation. So instead of a garbled collection of one sentence sound bites, the public gets huge chucks of information from Montana DNRC and U.S. Forest Service fire experts, spoken in their own words.

From my perspective, the heart of the article is the simple fact that way, way too many homeowners living in the Wildland-Urban Interface simply don’t take responsibility for conducting proven and effective FireWise measures, which need to occur on a pretty regular basis, and certainly long before a wildfire is cresting the ridge. Remember, on the Lolo Creek Complex fire professional “firefighters [from as far away as North Carolina] had been relegated to raking pine needles from yards while others cleared brush and limbed up trees surrounding homes.”  Yet,  many times (as the article points out) these are the same people who complain the loudest when U.S. Forest Service, state DNRC and even local volunteer fire department crews aren’t able to save their house during a wildfire.

The article really cuts to the heart of the issue regarding some of the politics in Montana, including what can best be described as simply anti-government sentiments.

The situation described by US Forest Service and Montana DNRC fire experts also seems to contradict one of the common refrains I hear all the time in Montana, and also on this blog when we talk about wildfire in places like Colorado’s Front Range. Basically, while some people want to give the impression that homeowners, neighborhood associations and communities have done absolutely everything possible to get FireWise and prepare for the wildfire, and all that’s left to do is increase “fuel reduction” efforts on public Forest Service lands, the experts in this article paint a much different picture. Perhaps this is just the situation and mindset in Montana, so I’m curious to see what others have experienced.

Finally, I also must highlight that the point made by Montana State Forester Harrington regarding the fact that “thinning and pre-treating forests” really doesn’t work when you have single-digit humidity, 95+ temperatures and high winds is basically the same exact point that environmentalists have been trying to make for the better part of two decades now. Reader’s may recall George Wuerthner’s piece “Wind Drives All Large Blazes,” posted on this blog as the Lolo Creek Complex fire was burning.

Please do read David Erickson’s entire article. Below are some highlight snips:

LOLO – How do you reconcile the fact that many private landowners in Montana are resistant to the government and local fire managers telling them what to do with their land when those same private landowners become outraged after a wildfire burns their property that wasn’t properly taken care of beforehand?

That’s the question a group of state legislators grappled with when they met with Bitterroot Valley fire managers and Montana Department of Natural Resources forestry officials on Thursday to tour the remains of the 11,000-acre Lolo Complex fire that ripped through the Highway 12 corridor west of Lolo this past August….

State Sen. Cliff Larson of Frenchtown, who represents Senate District 50, said he lives near where the Black Cat fire torched 12,000 acres in 2007.

“I know the Frenchtown Fire Department tried to work with local landowners on fuel reduction programs and protecting against fire hazards,” he recalled. “People said, ‘Just get off my property, don’t tell me what to do.’ And there are two people that I know of personally that were outraged when the fire department didn’t come there right away and because they had 15 cords of wood stacked behind their house they had to hose them down to protect their house.

“And they are outraged that they didn’t get that attention, even though the fire department went there in advance and warned them that they have some serious fire hazards right there on their property. And those two families are still complaining. So how do we force people to cooperate with the DNRC and the fire departments and the Forest Service? It’s frustrating.”

Bob Harrington, the Montana DNRC state forester, said that community wildfire prevention plans are really good in some counties but not great in others.

“We in the fire service have been at it for 15 to 20 years now, really intensely trying to impress on those homeowners that live in the wildland/urban interface to treat their property,” he explained. “We do public media, we do workshops, and there are individual consultations that the fire departments do, that our folks do. A lot of the landowners do it and take advantage of it. But we have a lot folks that that isn’t enough of an incentive yet. Whether it’s pressure from insurance, pressure from banking or peer pressure from their neighbors. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. Unfortunately, sometimes we as Americans, there’s a lot of us that don’t respond unless it hits us in the wallet.”…

The fire managers agreed that the Lolo Complex’s main blowup was the type of fire behavior that is not easily controlled….

Harrington said a variety of factors contributed to the fire’s wild blowup.

“That’s a part of the public dialogue that we’ve been having since this fire happened,” he said. “We have folks on one side who are saying, ‘See, forest management doesn’t do anything to stop forest fires,’ because there was so much Plum Creek land that had been managed, and that also burned. The reality is, when we are talking about thinning and pre-treating forest, we’re not talking about fires like this. This was one of the most extreme fire days that you are going to see in western Montana. Single-digit humidity, close to triple-digit temperatures, and then winds 20, 30 and 40 miles per hour.

“The analogy I always give is that we still give flu shots even though we have influenza outbreaks because we are trying to minimize the effect of that, so we’re still treating forests. Reducing fire risk and prioritizing some sections in the wildland urban interface, and it gets a little bit trickier on private land and industrial forest land, which the majority of this fire happened on, areas that had been intensively managed in the past. A lot of what carried the fire was second-growth trees. Everything was burning, grass and downed logs, everything.”

Harrington said he has noticed that some landowners take advantage of educational programs and cost-sharing programs to prepare their land for fire danger, but others do not….

“So the innovators that understand where they live, they’ve taken advantage of it. But even then, like these guys saw managing this fire, we had a lot of folks in Sleeman Gulch where we had firefighters out there doing that work at the last minute.”….

Ehli said that in his experience, telling property owners what they need to do on their land to mitigate fire danger isn’t going to work.

“When we start talking about a wildfire prevention plan, I was the chief of the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department when that came through and there was a huge pushback,” he said. “Oh my God, the resistance you got from county personnel, county commissioners and huge, huge pushback. So when you start talking about a community wildfire prevention plan, it’s not as simple as drawing lines on a map. Not only because of the enormous amount of property you have to think about, but also the political aspect as well.

“So we have got to be honest with ourselves when we start talking about prevention plans, I’m going to say it, it’s almost impossible unless we have a different mindset put in. And maybe we’re going to get there someday within the state of Montana and get people on board and get property owners on board about what we need to do, but we’ve really got to talk about the near impossibility of getting something like this in play, mostly from the political standpoint.”….

Liane said that he hopes a fire like the Lolo Complex will convince people to listen to local fire departments about taking steps to protect their property during the winter.

“Those of us who have served in natural resources committees would love to hear more about how do you convince those individuals who are knotheads to take the firewood off their back porch?” he said. “We need to build a plan that encourages people through local service activities, and the fire department in Frenchtown is very proactive. They have the same problem that Lolo does. People are sitting ducks when a fire like this comes through.”

Hansen said not a lot has changed since the big fires of 2000 rolled through the Bitterroot Valley.

“It’s the short-term memory thing that kills us,” he said. “I mean, if you had come down here last winter knocking on doors to sell people on the idea of fuel treatment, they would have told you to pound sand. Now the next three years, they’ll be begging for it. And three years from now they’ll have forgotten how bad the fire was. And we’ve seen it happen since the fires of 2000. You know, two years after the fire, they are back to not wanting anybody to tell them what to do.”

“Until the fire comes knocking at their door,” Ehli added.

12 thoughts on “Fire Prevention Plans: “Almost impossible unless we have a different mindset””

  1. I drove through the Lolo Creek Complex area on my way from Missoula to Moscow last week, pretty impressive. Even in some good-sized green pastures with the creek running through the middle, the alders and willows were all scorched. Sad to see at least a few homes with nothing but a foundation and chimney remaining (one place the house was gone but the barn looked fine), other places you had to wonder how in the world they escaped. But so many places had big trees (mostly Ponderosa where I was, pretty dry hillsides) right up to within maybe 50 feet of the house. Lots of casinos in Montana, I’m not a gambler but if I was, I’d go to a casino rather than gamble my home the way some folks do.

  2. Most “natural” ignitions do not occur “when you have single-digit humidity, 95+ temperatures and high winds”. I do support people being responsible for their own properties, though. The video of firefighters “treating” private properties in the Blacks Fire shows your point very well. It is very clear that the public loves their shade so much that they will risk complete loss of their homes. I don’t think firefighters should be doing this. It would be better if local governments would mandate fire safety measures on private lands, and should levy taxes, while doing the work, if the landowner doesn’t comply. Or, give notice that parcels not up to standards will not be “saved”.

    However, there are many levels of weather conditions that occur in our public forests, and we should not be letting “whatever happens” rule our public lands. We’ve talked about Let-Burn fires, thinning projects, logging slash, and other fuels issues.

    There is a parallel to crime in big cities. Yes, we COULD merely provide minimal law enforcement in high crime areas, telling the public to employ their own crime-reducing activities, especially in low income areas. Crime, like wildfires, know no property lines. Should we be letting “whatever happens”, happen? Should we be creating “Crimeland Urban Interfaces”, to protect humans that live adjacent to them, but not residents that live outside of the mitigated areas?

    Wildfire mitigation isn’t about stopping wind-driven megafires. It is about stopping and slowing ignitions, BEFORE they get that big. Sharon has presented those ideas very well, in the past.

  3. Matthew

    A very good post – Thank you

    Some things from the article that I would like to highlight that you didn’t include:

    –> ““We have folks on one side who are saying, ‘See, forest management doesn’t do anything to stop forest fires,’ because there was so much Plum Creek land that had been managed, and that also burned. The reality is, when we are talking about thinning and pre-treating forest, we’re not talking about fires like this. This was one of the most extreme fire days that you are going to see in western Montana.”

    –> ““Working with industry and talking to them when they are doing timber harvest, we certainly have the hazardous fuel reduction law, so industry is taking care of that thinning part of it,” he said. “So, that leaves us with either small private or Forest Service land”

    –> Finally there is this stinging indictment of the non management of USFS lands:
    ** “if we could have you guys managing the national forests we would probably not be here, but you don’t.” **

    Note: I use HTML quite extensively on Flicker and am trying it out here but it does not appear to be the same HTML rules as Flicker so bear with me if you see weird symbols.

    • Hello Gil. Thank you, I’m glad you liked the post Thank you also for highlighting some other parts of the article you found interesting. As a matter of fact I will point out, however, that I did highlight that first paragraph in the original blog post (ie “We have folks on one side….”).

      Also, I’m not so sure the opinion expressed by GOP State Senator Fred Thomas (the leader of the massively failed electronic deregulation scheme [SEE: here, here and here] in Montana and a longtime timber industry supporter): “If we could have you guys managing the national forests we would probably not be here, but you don’t” is really much of a “stringing indictment”….especially since he said it while were standing in the Lolo Creek Complex fire, the vast majority of which burned on heavily logged and roaded Plum Creek Timber Company land, not Forest Service land.

  4. Matthew

    The weather situation does seem to raise a question about his comment. BUT, without the BAER report, his statement can’t be ruled out.

    Re: “in the Lolo Creek Complex fire, the vast majority of which burned on heavily logged and roaded Plum Creek Timber Company land, not Forest Service land.”
    –> Reread my second arrow above where Bob Harrington, the Montana DNRC state forester says, to paraphrase: ‘the timber industry is doing its part to keep fuels down’ and then implies that small private and USFS aren’t as far along.
    –> Your heavy emphasis on where most of the burn was, in this and the previous thread, is not appropriate. The key is that it started on USFS land and what happened between the ignition point and the PC timberlands boundary had a very large say in what happened when it got to PC lands. So, again, until we get the BAER report, we can’t rule out the possibility that it might not have even reached PC lands if USFS fuels had been better managed. Yes we know about the heat, humidity and the winds but I don’t know if the winds were high at the time of ignition or kicked up later, again, we await the BAER report.

    Between this thread and the previous thread on the Lolo, I keep getting the feeling that you are implying that this incident destroys any arguments in favor of sound forest management and its role in reducing the extent of wildfire. If that is your point then consider this comparison: People not wearing seat belts who walk away from horrific accidents while others in the car died while wearing seat belts doesn’t convince me not to wear a seat belt. With a very strong statistics background and a knowledge of the risk probabilities for the two options and lacking clairvoyance, I take the lower risk option and wear a seat belt religiously. That same risk management is a large part of what sound forest management is about.

    • Hello Gil: I’m happy to post the Lolo Creek Complex fire BAER report, once it becomes available. Once the Gov opens back up I’ll contact someone at the Lolo NF and see when we can expect it.

      • Matthew

        Great, I look forward to the BAER report.

        Any reply regarding my statement: “I keep getting the feeling that you are implying that this incident destroys any arguments in favor of sound forest management and its role in reducing the extent of wildfire. If that is your point then consider this comparison: …”

  5. THis was actually a pretty comprehensive story, except for Matt’s selective snipping.
    That said, I have little sympathy for those who won’t take even the smallest steps to manage the fuel zone around their homes, whether out of laziness or stupidity.
    I would at least have a plan to fall my pet trees away from the house if and when a fire gets to a certain point. Some of these characters with doghair lodgepole privacy should be left to face reality, in my view.
    But the fact remains that fires often get a giant head of steam on unmanaged federal ground then blow over onto other ownerships, sending jumpers ahead of the fire front et cetera.
    For example, the 1910 fires smoldered and burnt and lingered for much of that summer, just waiting for when the perfect conditions Harrington mentioned. Then, it all blew up. If you have a fire you can’t manage when conditions are not completely nuts, then what happens when you get what you dread?
    Fire is a fact of life. But we can do what is possible and rational to control the intensity of fire, and make money. Why we don’t is the part that blows my mind.


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