Montana is predicted to have an above average wildfire season. And with firefighters potentially facing dual emergencies of wildfire and COVID-19, specialists say that this year, more than any other, residents can play a vital role in keeping firefighters safe by preparing their homes and communities. Morgan Levey takes us on a wildfire assessment of her home.
It’s a warm evening in late May and I’m looking at the ponderosa pine and douglas fir forests of Mount Jumbo looming overhead. I’m in front of my house, in Missoula’s Upper Rattlesnake neighborhood. And I’m out here, using Zoom on my phone, to take a tour of my yard with Chris Johnson.
Every year, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation offers free home visits by local fire professionals to residents who live in and near the wildland urban interface—the junction where houses and forest meet. The goal is to make properties less vulnerable to wildfires. And they’re still doing it this year… just virtually.
"I would say—the thing I would tell a homeowner whether I’m walking with you virtually or walking with you around the home, that your responsibility to lessen the risk of your home to wildfire is yours," Johnson said.
Chris Johnson is part of an inter-agency wildfire prevention and education team for Southwest Montana. We spent an hour on Zoom as I walked around my property, looking at everything from my roof to the painted surface of the walls, to that ignored corner of the yard where debris has piled up. He asked me questions like:
"How far away from the slope are you? Any place where vegetation—other than green grass—is touching the home? Any other storage around the house?"
To guide us, Johnson was using a 15-page checklist—one of several resources in the virtual tool kit put together by the DNRC. During shelter in place, homeowners were encouraged to use the materials to evaluate their homes. As Montana begins to open up, fire prevention specialists are slowly resuming in-person home visits… employing social distancing and wearing masks when appropriate.
"I think more than any other year, it’s important for Montanans to take action this year," Kristin Sleeper, the states community preparedness program manager for the DNRC, said.
Sleeper said that like any other year, the goal is to protect communities and Montana’s natural resources from fire. But she adds this year, with firefighters needing to isolate themselves into small crews, any wildfire will increase their interaction with other people and their exposure to COVID-19.
"We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to reduce the risk of firefighter exposure, so we’ve really, sort of, redoubled down on our efforts to educate Montanans about what they can do and the impact that they can have in doing their part to keep wildfires from starting," Sleeper said.
Nearly 64 percent of Montana residents live in the wildland-urban interface, according to a 2018 report conducted by Silvis Lab out of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And in reality, it’s probably a larger percent as the report used data from 2010. Sleeper says during shelter-in-place, the DNRC tried to capitalize on their captive audience.
"But I would say right now we’re having more homeowners reach out to us because they have either been contacted by their insurance company and need a wildfire home assessment, but also they just simply have more time and they’ve been more engaged in different aspects. So we’ve tried to really be proactive and doing a lot of interviews and talking to a lot of people to make sure they know we still have digital resources available," Sleeper said.
This also means ramping up social media efforts in place of in person meetings to educate communities. But fire prevention specialists in southeast Montana say it can be difficult to know if their virtual messaging is landing.
"I’d say this year, it’s challenged us, but we’ve actually gotten to a skill set where we can become pretty good marketers," Jordan Koppen, a fire prevention specialist with the DNRC who works in Ravalli County, said.
Ravalli County has the highest number of homes built in high fire hazard areas in Montana, which makes it particularly vulnerable. Koppen’s been working on an initiative called Fire in the Root, which aims to educate the community about fire threats. He says not being able to host in-person meetings has made it hard to gauge the program’s popularity this year.
"We’re hoping that the message that we’re trying to portray is getting across to the right people that live out in the woods," Koppen said.
The story is similar in the northwest. Ali Ulwelling works in the DNRC’s office in Kalispell. They’ve been issuing press releases to the communities in Northwest Montana.
"Recommending that homeowners in the wildland-urban interface do take a little extra time this season, understanding that our wildland fire resources are going to be operating in a different way," Ulwelling said.
The DNRC supports pile burning around properties and activities that mitigate potential wildfire fuel. Because the goal is to avoid putting unnecessary stress on potentially limited firefighting resources.
She says that the West Glacier community has been particularly proactive in organizing community discussions this year.
"They’ve been really consistent with their community communication events, sort of pushing that message. Other communities are less consistent," Ulwelling said.
Ulwelling says that a community’s eagerness to prepare depends on if they’ve had a recent fire event. West Glacier had the Howe Ridge fire in 2018.
Community preparedness goes beyond home preparation though. It also means limiting human-caused fires: those started by debris burns, campfires and equipment or vehicles.
"We do know in Montana, 60 percent of wildfires are human-caused. And so when we are thinking about community preparedness, it’s really important for us to also be thinking about how to prevent human-caused wildfire starts," Sleeper said.
Montana hasn’t imposed any limits on recreation this year. And Koppen says, it likely won’t, as long as people are following the laws. That includes not leaving a campfire unattended, not setting off fireworks on public lands, nor discarding cigarettes.
"If people are behaving themselves, then agencies aren’t going to have any reason to implement a lot of the restrictions," Koppen said.
Another aspect of fire season preparation is wildland fuel mitigation, or activities like thinning trees or burning debris in overgrown forests to reduce the likelihood of a high-intensity fire later in the season. Mike Goicoechea works in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and is the Incident Commander for one of two Type 1 fire teams in the Northern Rockies. He says due to COVID-19, the forest service had to take precautions around adding extra smoke to the atmosphere this spring. They actually stopped prescribed burns for a period of time.
"Because it’s a respiratory illness, my agency took that approach across the country. The generalized, big broadcast burns that you would normally see going on, people held off on that," Goicoechea said.
According to Goicoechea, prescribed burns have now continued in the Northern Rockies.
But back to my home assessment, we’re just about done. We spent a lot of time looking at the home ignition zone, the 30 foot area that is most likely to cause my house to catch fire. Apart from a wood fence butting up against the garage, I was mostly in the clear.
"Okay, the last thing I want to check is out on the street," Johnson said. "Would somebody know they’ve arrived at your address?"
You cannot see my house number from the street. This is what the fire department will use to identify a house. I failed this one. But luckily, after our call, Johnson will send me a full report of his assessment so I can fix the problem areas before fire season.
For information on how to book a home assessment, click here or contact your local DNRC land office.