A new study says the number of homes constructed in areas with high wildfire risks has doubled in western Montana since 1990, outpacing development rates in areas with low fire hazards.
Kelly Pohl is a researcher with the Bozeman-based non-profit, Headwaters Economics.
"There were more than 11,000 new homes constructed in areas with high wildfire hazard. That represents about one in eight of all new homes constructed in Western Montana," says Pohl.
A report from Headwaters Economics shows Ravalli County easily leading the pack with almost 7,000 homes built in wildfire hazard areas from 1990-2016.
Missoula County is number two with over 2,200 homes, followed by Gallatin County with 430 homes.
Rachel Pohl: We used data that was produced by the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region and they looked at a bunch of factors related to the likelihood of a fire occurring, the potential intensity of a fire if it were to occur there, and in particular how that intensity would affect structures if they were located in that location. They mapped this fire hazard across the counties in Western Montana, it's a 25-county area.
Edward O'Brien: Over the past 26 years, right?
KP: Yeah, so the wildfire hazard data is as best as we can model today. Then we also looked at housing data from the Montana Department of Revenue from 1990-2016. Gallatin County, Lewis and Clark County, Lake County, Granite,Flathead and Park counties all also have relatively high rates of new housing growth in areas of high wildfire hazard.
EO: Why? What's going on in, like, Ravalli County that it's so prevalent?
KP: I think there are a couple of intersecting factors. One is that there are a lot of areas with high wildfire hazard in that county. There's a lot of land that is prone to wildfire. And there's high growth in these counties. Many of these places are seeing a lot of new residents coming in and building homes and we know that in Montana a lot of people are attracted to living in areas where there are potentially high wildfire risks: it's forested areas, it's areas maybe with larger lots. An attraction to that natural Montana setting is accompanied by a risk.
EO: Is it fair to say that universally, no matter where we're talking about, these places then they're in the WUI?
KP: Yes, I think it's fair to call these places wildland-urban interface. Really that term means where you've got an intersection of vegetative fuels that are fire-prone and homes or structures. We have seen across the country and across the West that counties that use land use planning as a strategy to reduce wildfire risk have success with that. There are a lot of tools you can use to reduce the risk of housing in the wildland-urban interface. And research shows that houses are less vulnerable when they're constructed with fire-resistant building materials and when vegetation in the immediate area surrounding the home is mitigated to reduce wildfire risk. And those are strategies that counties can deploy to reduce risks to their populations and to their communities.
EO: What are the risks here when it comes to fire suppression? I mean what's this costing us?
KP: We have looked at the approximate cost of protecting homes in Montana from wildfire and what we found is that a home within a mile of a wildfire is associated with around a $9,000 increase in wildfire suppression costs. So at the rate of current development we're increasing our fire suppression cost liability by at least four million dollars every year.
EO: And that I think the report says is a conservative estimate, right?
KP: That is a conservative estimate. We've done more recent studies in other states and have found a much higher firefighting cost associated with new homes. We also know that wildfire suppression is really a small share of the total cost of wildfire. Wildfires cost communities in many ways and most of those costs, such as lost property tax revenue, lost tourist income, long-term physical and mental health consequences; those are costs borne at the community level by the counties and the citizens within those counties that suffer wildfire events.
EO: I think you've touched on this, Ms. Pohl, but let's maybe touch on it again. How do we avoid this problem in the first place?
KP: Research shows that home-loss is really dependent on how houses are built, the materials that are used, and how houses are designed, and on the vegetation in the area surrounding the home. So to reduce those risks, counties can use land-use planning codes, regulations, and plans to encourage or require homeowners to mitigate their wildfire risk around their homes. I would add that we've been working with Missoula County, Lewis and Clark County, and Park County on some land-use planning strategies in those places. they are developing some new tools and strategies that other Montana counties can look to as examples.
EO: What kind of strategies are we talking about?
KP: One great example is that Missoula County just adopted a new community wildfire protection plan and it includes an action table that incorporates a lot of these land use planning tools as well as fuel-reduction strategies to reduce the county's wildfire risk.
Kelly Pohl is a researcher with the Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics which released a study this week showing the number of homes constructed in areas with high wildfire risks has doubled in western Montana since 1990.