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

The rate of structure loss due to wildfires is growing, researcher says

Jackie Stermitz looks over the remains of her home in the Florence, MT area, which burned in the Lolo Peak Fire on August 17, 2017.
Mike Albans
Jackie Stermitz looks over the remains of her home in the Florence, MT area, which burned in the Lolo Peak Fire on August 17, 2017.

New research led by a University of Montana professor shows wildfires in the West are destroying more homes per square mile burned than in previous years. Fire ecologist Philip Higuera is the lead author on the publication and spoke with Montana Public Radio’s Austin Amestoy.

Austin Amestoy: All right, professor, the big headline from your report is that the number of homes and structures lost to wildfires in the last decade, 2010 to 2020, increased by almost 250% compared to the decade before. It sounds like a big number. And I'm curious, were you surprised by your findings?

Philip Higuera: Yeah, it is a big number, and part of our findings were surprising and part of them weren't. You know, we're all familiar with recent wildfire disasters from particularly the last five or so years, 2017, 2018, 2020. So from that perspective, we kind of were expecting to see a trend. But what was surprising was that we also found that we're losing more homes and structures to wildfire even if we kind of standardized or account for how much area is burning.

What was surprising was that we also found that we're losing more homes and structures to wildfire even if we kind of standardized or account for how much area is burning.
Prof. Philip Higuera

Austin Amestoy: Right. So it's like that the damage output per square mile burned is higher than it has been, essentially.

Philip Higuera: Correct.

Austin Amestoy: So break down that big scary number for us, the 250% number. You know, where are the most structures burning and are there any areas that are bucking the trend?

Philip Higuere: Yeah, that's a great question. And that was part of what motivated our work was to understand how this varied across the West. So, the 11 Western states — the lower 48 — not surprisingly, California leads the way in that overall statistic. 77% of all the homes and structures destroyed between '99 and 2020 were from California. So, that makes sense in part, because California's the largest state. What was surprising to us is that, in essence, no Western state bucked the trend. Structure lost to wildfires increased in all but two states across the West — Arizona and New Mexico. And when we look at that structure loss rate that increased across all Western states, including Montana, the only exception there was New Mexico, which basically didn't change.

Austin Amestoy: Yeah, so let's talk about that Montana data. You know, how does Montana compare to our neighbors in the West in terms of structures burned relative to the size or scale of our fires?

Philip Higuera: In terms of structure loss or even structure loss per square mile burned, we're about in the middle. And another important finding from our study was that, you know, the majority of fires that lead to home and structure loss are ignited by humans. And in Montana, that's not the case. The majority of the fires that lead to structure loss are still coming from lightning. But that needs to be couched within the overall point that we actually don't have a lot of structure loss in Montana.

The connection between humans and fire goes back millions of years. What started with campfires and cooking grew into a burning addiction that catalyzed the Industrial Revolution and now shapes nearly every aspect of our society. Now, our ongoing reliance on fire in its many forms is changing the climate with explosive consequences for wildfires — and much more.

Austin Amestoy: But, you know, of course, the point we shouldn't miss is that the numbers are still up across the board. Even in a state like Montana in which we see a relatively, you know, a lower structure loss compared to other states. And I'm wondering, you know, what did you guys find is driving that growth? Because, you know, we often hear the sort of forest management versus climate change debate brought up in political circles a lot of the time. And, you know, is that binary accurate when we're talking about growth and structure loss from fires?

Philip Higuera: That's a great question, too. And the simple answer is no. The forest management versus climate change framing, it's not only not accurate, it's also not really helpful. In essence, there's no single culprit that can explain it all. We've changed a lot of things. We've changed our climate, which makes conditions more conducive to burning, our fire seasons are longer. We've also changed what's available to burn, you know, due to past land use, a range of policies that limited natural and cultural use of fire on landscape. So, we have a lot more vegetation in many areas. And then finally, what this study really highlights as well is that we've changed the pattern, the timing and location of ignitions on the landscape. One of the things that human ignitions do is add potential wildfires in parts of the year when lightning is otherwise absent.

Austin Amestoy: Did you or your co-authors explore any potential solutions or ways to mitigate the dangers that the wildfire season is posing now?

Philip Higuera: Yeah, we certainly did. We typically start by emphasizing the importance of mitigating human-caused climate change. The sooner that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the sooner our summer temperatures, and fall and winter temperatures, will come back down and moderate. So, I know we're all familiar with Smokey Bear and Smokey's message.

Austin Amestoy: Right.

The Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, is where forest and homes meet. It’s the fastest growing land use type in the nation, and also where one in three homes across the country are situated. What’s it mean to live in the WUI, where the stakes of wildfire are higher than anywhere else? And why is this area so vulnerable to fire?

Philip Higuera: It's not that only you can stop wildfires, but only you can stop some of the most devastating wildfires. And those are the ones that we're really concerned about, not so much the ones out in the wilderness that actually do useful work.

Austin Amestoy: Right, because you know, what we understand more now that we didn't used to, necessarily, is that, you know, wildfire has an important role to play in ecosystems.

Philip Higuera: A co-author on this work, she likes to say that we need to take Smokey Bear and bring him to the suburbs. Bring him to where we're living.

Austin Amestoy: University of Montana professor and fire ecologist Philip Higuera. Phil, thanks for sharing your findings.

Philip Higuera: Thank you.

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Fireline probes the causes and consequences of the increasingly devastating wildfires burning in the U.S. It taps into the experience of firefighters, tribal land managers, climate scientists and more to understand how we got here and where we're going.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
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