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A Burning Idea

What we can learn through wildfire awareness

When a trail of smoke rises from forest pines above Missoula, worry ignites. Questions and concerns needle out like a larch in spring. Are they doing a controlled burn? Is it a wildfire? Will those houses be safe? Most residents know about creating defensible spaces around homes to keep property safe. Now, thanks to a cadre of officials working across agency jurisdictions, Missoula homeowners have even quicker, less expensive options.

“Fire doesn’t know boundaries,” said Jennifer Hensiek, Missoula District Ranger of the Lolo National Forest. “So, we’re part of the National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy. It covers all entities with wildland fire responsibilities. There are three circles: the Forest Service maintains resilient landscapes, homeowners form fire-adapted communities, and local agencies coordinate emergency response.”

Maxwell Rebholz connects Missoula homeowners with local agencies. As the Missoula County Wildfire Preparedness Coordinator, he understands how everyone has a role in wildfire risk management. 

“The Missoula County Fire Protection Association (MCFPA), the Department of Natural Resources (DNRC), and the Forest Service (USFS) are all involved in mitigating risk.” said Maxwell.

In fact, almost every home in Missoula is vulnerable to wildfire. 

“The only place without risk is Southgate Mall,” Maxwell revealed. “That’s because it’s not only flames that are most damaging. Embers pose a significant threat, as well. A fire creates its own wind patterns, and embers can float up and travel up to a mile and a half from the fire. Pretty much every home in Missoula is within that range,” he said. “When the Black Mountain fire broke out near O’Brien Creek, embers landed on Reserve Street.”

Throughout Missoula County, 58% of populated areas are vulnerable to wildfire from indirect sources, like embers, according to wildfirerisk.org. Maxwell explained why. 

“When a vulnerable home ignites, that ignition has the potential to carry the fire to a neighboring structure and throughout the community. It can cause structure-to-structure ignitions that are separate from the wildfire itself,” Maxwell said. To protect homes, he recommends a strategy called "home hardening." 

“There’s simple things a homeowner can do. You can lay down concrete pavers. Even something as easy as putting screens over vents to block embers can make a difference,” he added.

Eric Mendelson worked with Maxwell and was surprised to learn that treating his property didn’t require sacrificing attractive landscapes. 

“At first, I was scared they would tell me all of my trees had to come down. They didn’t. The most significant part was trimming the lower limbs on conifers. When a fire catches, trees frequently burn from the ground up. Removing limbs up a ways makes the trees much safer,” said Maxwell. This year, Eric and his wife continue to adapt their property. 

“We’re extending our safety in the few, critical feet nearest our buildings by installing, on our own, a curving surround of river stone and boulders. We have grass and mulch islands outside the immediate noncombustible surround but we can leave these as is. We don’t have to give up our aesthetic at all and we’re discovering we feel proud of our new bit of creativity,” said Eric.

Ranger Jennifer understands the importance of fire-tolerant yet attractive spaces. 

“Those beautiful view-sheds we enjoy, the open space, and recreation we can access are all part of living with resilient landscapes. This whole place evolved with the regularity of fire. It’s important for us to learn how to adapt and thrive with it,” she said.

Later this year, Missoula residents can join the Forest Service and other agencies in planning, researching, and implementing proposed projects. Wildfire Adapted Missoula (WAM) will launch a new website to connect the public with officials. For now, Maxwell offers recommendations for where to go for more information. 

Wildfirerisk.org is a good place to start. You can also look up NFPA.org (National Fire Protection Association). Then, call your local fire department or visit dnrc.mt.gov to see if your property is eligible for resources.”

After his positive experience, Eric encourages others to make that first call. 

“The people who come for a site visit are collaborative. They don’t want to ask you to do the impossible and they don’t need to. It’s a game of risk-level and improving your home’s chances. You don’t have to make your home into a fireproof bunker.”

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