Lewis and Clark County is one of five awardees in the nation of a community wildfire planning grant program.
The Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program offers technical support, bringing in a team of consultants to collaborate with local officials on land-use planning, firefighting capacity, forestry and wildfire risk-mapping. The program is provided by Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics in partnership with national consultants Wildfire Planning International.
The grant will help county officials as they look at future growth and reflect on wildfires such as the 2012 Corral fire, which threatened the western Helena Valley, said George Thebarge, director of Lewis and Clark County Community Development and Planning. As the county recently updated its growth policy, rural fire protection was seen as a key constraint.
“What we see here is an opportunity to bring in some national experts, that along with the local firefighting community will try to explore the existing situation in terms of what is being done as well as what other communities across the West are trying,” he said.
With bountiful forests around Helena and throughout the county, the potential for wildfire in the “wildland urban interface” is a reality for many residents. Fuel loading and climate change are two major concerns, Thebarge said, leading to local education for homeowners and regulations on development.
The existing fire community is very well organized and focused on fuel mitigation, clearing defensible space around homes and coordinating with other agencies to assist on fires, he said. Outside experts will help ask if the current resources will suffice in the future.
Pat McKelvey with Tri-County FireSafe Group agreed that the local wildfire emphasis has largely focused on education and mitigation. As homes continue to be built in the wildland urban interface, working with the planning-grant experts may help with clearer risk identification, firefighting capacity or potential regulations, although exact topics would still be determined, he said.
Thebarge noted that everything is on the table, including examining current development regulations and potential for new regulations.
“We’re hoping this project will help us do a more effective job but we’re also hoping the lessons learned here will be translated across the state and across the nation,” he said.
An exciting aspect of winning the grant will be communicating with one of the other recipients, Park County, Montana, he said.
Along with the two Montana counties, Ashland, Oregon, Bemidji, Minnesota, Chelan County, Washington. and Huerfano County, Colorado, also received 2017 grants. Missoula County was among the 2016 recipients.
The Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program came out of conversations with the U.S. Forest Service about a need for wildfire land-use planning, said Kimiko Barrett, project lead with Headwater Economics.
In 2014, Headwaters and Wildfire Planning International worked in Summit County, Colorado, using private funding. After finding success there, it has returned the past three years in multiple counties and cities with a mix of federal and private grant dollars.
The program builds towards more fire adaptive communities using a proactive approach of risk analysis and planning. Technical experts will develop a list of recommendations with follow up assistance to facilitate them, but communities are under no obligation.
“Each place is different and what sets this process apart for others is that this process works on a local scale with community stakeholders -- it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Barrett said. “It’s a bottom-up approach and we’re by no means coming in and telling communities what to do.”
The grant comes strictly via the cost of the experts, she said -- a value of up to $150,000.
Work in Lewis and Clark, Park and Missoula counties also opens up the opportunity for comparative studies across Montana of wildfire in land use planning, Barrett said.