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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Protecting The Wildland-Urban Interface Stretches Firefighters Thin

Montana Wildland-Urban Interface Parcels
Montana DNRC
Montana Wildland-Urban Interface Parcels

The summer fire season is just around the corner, and a lifelong Montana firefighter says lots of homes in the area are at risk.

Dick Mangan owns Missoula’s Blackbull Fire Consulting business.

"Just look around the Missoula area and down the Bitterroot: Pattee Canyon, Rattlesnake, Grant Creek, the west slope of the Bitterroots. It doesn’t have to be a big fire, oftentimes, to cook off a lot of homes really quickly."

Mangan explains that, for firefighters, protecting homes that have been built in the so-called wildland-urban interface demands a lot of manpower and resources.

"It’s not uncommon to have a need for a single engine at every single home."

And he says firefighters won’t even try to save high-risk homes they can’t safely protect.

"We’re going to walk away from it. Trying to protect a home that’s not defensible to begin with doesn’t make good sense."

It’s not just a Montana problem. According to 2010 Census data, 99 million Americans — roughly one third of the American population — lives in that wildland-urban interface.

Mangan thinks there’s mounting pressure to continue building in the interface even though our wildfire seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and burning more intensely.

"Private property owners want to subdivide, builders want to build, commissioners are looking for a tax base."

National subdivision fire guidelines recommend siding, roofing, road layouts and brush-clearing limits that can help those homes survive fires.

“But when you want local control, it’s easier to waive those kind of things than try to meet a national standard," Mangan says.

Firefighters respond to a wildfire burning in the wildland-urban interface near Clinton, MT in 2015
Credit Dave Dennis
Firefighters respond to a wildfire burning in the wildland-urban interface near Clinton, MT in 2015

Some argue that homes in the wildland-urban interface should pay higher insurance premiums because of the greater risk they present. Mangan doesn’t think that will happen anytime soon. He says far more homes are destroyed every year by common structural fires than by wildfire.

"So if you’re a risk manager, 1 percent of your problem is wildfires. If you were to put in very tough standards before you would insure somebody, you’d probably lose a whole bunch of clients. Some other insurance company would step in and pick them up."

In other fire-related news, The Air National Guard recently opted not to place more firefighting air tanker capability in Great Falls. The so-called “Military Airborne Firefighting Systems – or “MAFFs” - will instead go to Reno, Nevada.

These MAFFs can transform big military cargo planes like C-130s into working firetankers.

Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke and Senator Jon Tester unsuccessfully pressed for the equipment to be transferred to the Montana Air National Guard’s Airlift Wing in Great Falls. They argued it would be good for the mission while simultaneously  bolstering wildfire suppression capabilities and response time in the west.

Dick Mangan agrees those MAFF-equipped tankers can be valuable tools, but adds that having them in Montana isn’t necessarily essential.

"Federal firefighting agencies have to use contract resources like Neptune Aviation before they’re able to go to the Air National Guard. I don’t think those rules apply for the state of Montana DNRC, but on the federal side I think they’re still obligated to use contract aircraft first."

Over the last 10 years, military C-130s equipped with MAFF units have delivered over 9 million gallons of retardant on wildfires.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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