In these long, dark days of December, wildfire may seem a distant memory. But in many parts of the country, wildfire has shed its seasonality and become a year-round phenomenon, smashing previous records, costing billions and shattering lives.
Thanks to a warming climate and a century of fire suppression, wildfires are starting earlier in the spring and burning longer into the fall.
But climate change and fuel build-up are not the sole cause of heightened wildfire disasters. In fact, a natural event like wildfire is not a disaster in and of itself — wildfire is ecologically necessary and critical to the healthy functioning of our forests, grasslands and shrublands.
A wildfire does not become a disaster until it destroys resources valued by communities — homes, infrastructure, water quality, and in the most tragic of cases, lives. Today’s wildfires are more disastrous because we are putting more people and homes in harm’s way. Across the country — including in Montana — development is happening fastest in areas with wildfire potential, making future disasters more likely.
Fortunately, a decade of research, post-fire analyses, and laboratory experiments have led to new science about how to avoid such disasters and build wildfire-resilient communities. It starts with where and how we build homes.
A few relatively simple, affordable modifications to a home’s roof, walls, windows, deck, and landscaping can be the difference between the home’s survival and loss during a wildfire. For example, survivability of a home increases when it is constructed using ember-resistant, finer mesh in attic vents, noncombustible gutters, fire-resistant decking, and when a noncombustible landscaping zone is maintained in a five-foot area immediately around the home.
Where homes are spaced closer together, additional strategies become necessary to avoid home-to-home ignition, such as using noncombustible siding and tempered glass windows.
A study released last month by Headwaters Economics found the cost of constructing a home to such standards in Park County, Montana was roughly the same as a typical home. Using wildfire-resistant materials and design techniques have added benefits such as reduced maintenance and longer lifespans.
Wildfire hazard maps can help land use planners and elected officials determine where to implement such wildfire-resistant building standards, and where other land use planning strategies are needed to reduce wildfire risk. For example, neighborhoods in areas with higher hazard may require two roads in and out for improved evacuation, adequate water supply for firefighting, and slope set-backs. In areas of the most extreme hazard, new home development may need to be limited.
Communities do not have to invent these strategies alone. Already, international organizations have applied the best available science to develop wildfire-resiliency guidelines. These off-the-shelf building codes and land use policies are ready to implement, and easily modified to meet local conditions.
But implementation of these strategies takes time and requires application at the community scale. Voluntary measures by individual homeowners are important. However, if Montana communities want to avoid the wildfire disasters seen in California, Oregon and Washington in recent years, mitigation standards must become mandatory where wildfire hazard is highest.
Too often, we believe the unthinkable will not happen to our community, but such willful blindness does us all a disservice. When flammable homes are built in wildfire-prone areas, taxpayers end up shouldering the burden, economies are disrupted, and individuals suffer. We cannot take these risks anymore.
We have the knowledge, technology, and power to avoid wildfire disasters if we plan correctly. Let’s get started.