Montanans were fortunate this year’s wildfire season was less severe than last year, but it will not always be so.
Just last year, in a historic wildfire season, nearly 1.4 million acres burned and close to half a billion dollars was spent on state and federal wildfire suppression. As a result, the state budget was depleted and there was a financial shortfall of almost $200 million, leaving only around $4 million in the state’s wildfire reserve fund.
Not just in Montana but across the West wildfires are getting bigger, lasting longer, and causing more damage. These trends are exacerbated by climate change and historic forest management practices which make wildfire conditions drier, hotter, and more severe.
In parallel, housing patterns in Montana and the West increasingly favor wildfire-prone areas. Drawn by scenic views, open lands, and recreational opportunities, new home development around the periphery of communities, often called the wildland-urban interface, is the fastest growing land use type in the country.
In western Montana, the number of homes in high wildfire hazard areas has doubled since 1990. Today, there are nearly 23,000 homes located in high wildfire hazard areas. Each year, we add an average of 450 new homes in high wildfire hazard areas, accounting for about one in every eight new homes. Another 34,000 homes are in areas with moderate wildfire hazard.
In Lewis and Clark County the number of new homes located in high wildfire hazard areas has nearly doubled since 1990. In 2016, there were more than 4,200 homes in areas with moderate to high wildfire hazard in the county.
Increasing home development in wildfire-prone areas has direct implications for residents, federal tax payers, local governments, and land management agencies. As wildfire trends increase, so do the costs for protecting homes and people. Nationally, in 2017 federal wildfire appropriations were more than $4 billion a year for suppression activities. Locally, if current housing development trends continue in western Montana, wildfire suppression costs could increase by $4 million annually due to new homes in wildfire hazard areas.
Despite the challenges, there are opportunities to mitigate risks to people and homes. Since the 1970s, research has shown that the materials used during home construction and the design of the home, property, and neighborhood are critical in mitigating wildfire risks.
Known as the home-ignition zone (HIZ), the ignitability of the home itself and the immediate surroundings greatly determines whether a home will survive a wildfire. Viewing wildfire risks in this way focuses responsibility of wildfire protection onto community design and development rather than federal agencies and local fire departments.
Currently, no counties in Montana require homeowners who live in high wildfire hazard areas to manage their HIZ to reduce wildfire risks. The disconnect between homeowner responsibility and preventing wildfire disasters presents opportunities for more effective land use planning. Land use planning can require homeowner mitigation of the HIZ, as well as steer development in a way that is safer and more adaptable to wildfire risks.
Land use planning tools to reduce wildfire risks are limited in Montana for a variety of reasons. Local jurisdictions lack the authority, resources, and staffing capacity to regulate development in high wildfire risk areas. Most counties don’t have building codes or regulations to implement wildfire risk reduction measures.
We can do better to reduce wildfire risks to Montana’s homes and communities. Other western states like Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California, and Arizona have all adopted regulations for new home development in high wildfire risk areas. Montana can learn from them to grow safely and responsibly.