NOW: OUTLOOK The Bridger Foothills Fire in Bozeman, Montana, burned more
than 8,000 acres and destroyed 68 structures in September 2020.
Photo by Matt Suess

Protecting communities from wildfire.

BY AMANDA LOUDIN

Schelly Olson understands well the danger of wildfires to people, public lands and private property. As assistant chief for the Grand Fire Protection District No. 1 in Granby, Colorado, Olson also volunteers as chair for Grand County’s wildfire council. She spent much of her 2020 summer helping disseminate information and educate the public on these topics, not only in Colorado, but in other parts of the West as well.

It was some sort of cruel plot twist, then, that in October, Olson lost her home to the East Troublesome Fire. “We had done a good deal of mitigation, clearing dead and downed trees in the area,” she says. “We had a marshy wetland nearby and a lot of open space and green grass.”

The Olsons also lived in a home built with fire prevention in mind: the right materials, the right landscaping and the right ignition zone, referring to the 200 feet surrounding a home that can make a property vulnerable to fire. In spite of it all, the Olson home was one of 300 destroyed in Grand Lake by the fire that burned through more than 200,000 acres. “The winds were coming in at over 100 miles per hour,” says Olson.

While Olson heard repeatedly that the East Troublesome Fire was unprecedented—and it was in terms of size—she also knew that wildfires in the West are getting bigger, longer and more dangerous. As more people move into the wildland-urban interface—where the forests meet communities— lives and properties are more vulnerable than ever. To stand a fighting chance, an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed, say experts like Olson.

“Partnerships and collaboration are key to all of this,” she says. “We need to use every tool in our toolbox.”

Kimiko Barrett, wildfire research and policy lead at Headwaters Economics, in Bozeman, Montana, agrees. “For so long, all of our fire mitigation efforts were focused on wild lands,” she says. “But the last few years have shown us that we cannot rely only on forest management. We now need to look actively at the neighborhood and community level.”

HOW WE GOT HERE

To understand how to get out of a dangerous place, it’s important to first recognize how you arrived there. One piece of the puzzle is the historical approach to wildfire management, says Max Rebholz, wildfire preparedness coordinator with Missoula County in western Montana. “We have a long history of fire suppression dating back to the Great Burn of 1910,” he explains. “That shaped fire policy all the way into the early 2000s.”

The result of this approach, says Rebholz, is the growth of more trees, thicker stands of trees and more undesirable species. “In western Montana, we have a lot more Douglas fir than we used to,” he says. “This is a species that is vulnerable to insects and disease, and therefore dies off and becomes more of a fire hazard.”

Add in climate change to the mix—longer summers, shorter springs, decreased snowpack and overall precipitation—and you have another part of the recipe.

The final contributing factor completes the deadly cocktail: ever-encroaching building practices, whereby neighborhood and community lines move closer to wild lands. In Montana alone, for instance, the number of homes in moderate- and high-wildfire risk areas has nearly doubled since 1990. This is where coordinated efforts stand to make the biggest impact on fire reduction. But in the West, where rugged individualism has long ruled the day, this can often be the toughest issue to tackle.

Schelly Olson’s home pre- and post-East Troublesome Fire in Grand Lake, Colorado. Photos courtesy of Schelly Olson

ALL HANDS ON DECK

Ali Ulwelling, forestry assistance and fire information specialist at Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, based in Kalispell, Montana, says that she spends time learning from other communities that have suffered devastation from wildfires. From there, she sets out to educate.

“California is different from Montana, and even northwest Montana is different from Bozeman,” Ulwelling says. “It’s important to understand the conditions and then set the context.”

There is longstanding research, however, that crosses geography lines when it comes to mitigating fire risk at the property level. “It starts by making your home resistant to ignition,” Ulwelling explains. “The roof, gutters, siding, eaves, the size of your vents and metal screening covering them are all a big deal.”

Ninety percent of the time, ember showers that fly well ahead of advancing fires are what ultimately burn down structures, according to a 2019 Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety study. Keeping embers from touching ignitable materials is key, says Rebholz, who recommends metal screening with holes as small as one-sixteenth of an inch, rather than one-twenty-fifth of an inch. “The screens should cover any areas of spacing between the home and a deck or porch, or the spacing between the porch and the ground,” he says. “You don’t want the embers to have enough heat content in them to ignite whatever is on the other side of the screen.”

Deck materials matter, too, and should be a composite rather than wood, but one critical component of fire safety on property is the home ignition zone, a concept developed in the late 1990s by retired U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen. The zones break out into three radiuses: The immediate zone of 5 feet around your house; the intermediate zone of 5 to 30 feet; and the extended zone of 30 to 100 feet. “Many people focus on the home and immediate zone but overlook the importance of the outer two zones,” Rebholz says.

Although Olson had checked all of the above boxes, the East Troublesome Fire was proof positive that protecting property and mitigating wildfire spread goes beyond these measures and into the community. “In my role, I get a lot of calls from people saying, ‘I’ve done everything to protect my property, but my neighbor hasn’t,’” Olson says. “They want to know if there’s anything we can do about that. Unless there are regulations and codes to follow, our hands are tied.”

This is where the battle often lies: Finding a way to get everyone to work together, from clearing lands to supporting elected officials and policies that lead to stricter rules on building.

Ulwelling supports the idea that, as a community, groups ensure they coordinate. “On a small scale, this can look like getting together with neighbors to clear dead trees and then burn the piles,” she says. “On a broader scale, it means having a community mindset for fire adaptation. Work within the community and understand that the dream five acres you just purchased comes with responsibility.”

There’s also the role of insurance companies, which some fire prevention specialists would like to see take a bigger role in education and policy setting.

Education can be essential in getting communities up to speed and supportive of such efforts. In Montana, for instance, there are plenty of resources for informing communities, from the state and federal DNRs to Headwaters to websites like Fire Safe Montana and the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise. All, however, require leading individual homeowners to water.

“There’s definitely an element of social science involved,” says Ulwelling. “How do you motivate people to engage and work together?”

The ignition zone divides into three radiuses: The immediate zone of 5 feet around your house; the intermediate zone of 5 to 30 feet; and the extended zone of 30 to 100 feet. Graphic courtesy of Headwaters Economics

HOME IGNITION ZONE

Barrett says that Headwaters approaches a variety of communities with its resources and is sometimes turned away. “Montana still has a nonregulatory climate in many places. If a community doesn’t want us, we don’t bother them,” she says. “But there are other communities that want the information and realize that as we grow, so do our fire risks.”

As Olson reflects on the traumatic loss of her home and so many others, she has one major thought: “We can’t give up hope. I don’t want people to have the attitude that losing their homes is inevitable. My goal is to build a fire- adapted community.”

This, says Barrett, should be everyone’s end goal, and one she views as ultimately achievable. “When you look at history, many cities burned down before thinking deliberately about fire and adapting,” she says. “If we can apply the same attitudes and principles to the urban/wild interface, we can do it again.”

Sept. 4, 2020: The Bridger Foothills Fire sparked by a smoldering lightning strike. Photo by Carlee Brown

PREPARING HOMES FOR WILDFIRES

The following is a list of steps recommended by the National Fire Protection Association for homeowners looking to minimize the threat of wildfire to their homes.

IMMEDIATE ZONE

The home and the area 0-5′ from the furthest attached exterior point of the home; defined as a non-combustible area. Science tells us this is the most important zone to take immediate action on as it is the most vulnerable to embers. Start with the house itself then move into the landscaping section of the Immediate Zone.

  • Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers.
  • Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration.
  • Reduce embers that could pass through vents in the eaves by installing 1/8 inch metal mesh screening.
  • Clean debris from exterior attic vents and install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening to reduce embers.
  • Repair or replace damaged or loose window screens and any broken windows Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
  • Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches.

INTERMEDIATE ZONE

  • 5-30’ from the furthest exterior point of the home. Landscaping/hardscaping- employing careful landscaping or creating breaks that can help influence and decrease fire behavior.
  • Clear vegetation from under large stationary propane tanks.
  • Create fuel breaks with driveways, walkways/paths, patios, and decks.
  • Keep lawns and native grasses mowed to a height of four inches.
  • Remove ladder fuels (vegetation under trees) so a surface fire cannot reach the crowns. Prune trees up to six to ten feet from the ground; for shorter trees do not exceed 1/3 of the overall tree height.
  • Space trees to have a minimum of eighteen feet between crowns with the distance increasing with the percentage of slope.
  • Tree placement should be planned to ensure the mature canopy is no closer than ten feet to the edge of the structure.
  • Tree and shrubs in this zone should be limited to small clusters of a few each to break up the continuity of the vegetation across the landscape.

EXTENDED ZONE

  • 30-100 feet, out to 200 feet. Landscaping – the goal here is not to eliminate fire but to interrupt fire’s path and keep flames smaller and on the ground.
  • Dispose of heavy accumulations of ground litter/debris.
  • Remove dead plant and tree material.
  • Remove small conifers growing between mature trees.
  • Remove vegetation adjacent to storage sheds or other outbuildings within this area.
  • Trees 30 to 60 feet from the home should have at least 12 feet between canopy tops.*
  • Trees 60 to 100 feet from the home should have at least 6 feet between the canopy tops.*

*The distances listed for crown spacing are suggested based on NFPA 1144. However, the crown spacing needed to reduce/prevent crown fire potential could be significantly greater due to slope, the species of trees involved and other site specific conditions. Check with your local forestry professional to get advice on what is appropriate for your property.

Amanda Loudin, is an award-winning freelance writer who frequently covers health, science and the outdoors for publications like the Washington Post, Outside and REI’s Co-op Journal.