We need a new approach to wildfires

June 18, 2023 4:01 am

Wildfires play an essential ecological role in our forests, but the fires we’ve seen in recent years have been more intense than ever before, with fire seasons lasting longer than ever before as well. The intensity of fires and the longer-lasting fire season are no doubt a result of both climate change and a century of fire suppression that has allowed excess fuels to build up in our forests.

Making matters so much worse is that development in high-risk fire areas has been booming for the last several years. All of these factors have set the conditions for massive wildfire events that can devastate communities, upend people’s lives, and cost taxpayers billions. 

It’s clear we need to develop a plan for making our communities safer in the face of this growing wildfire threat. Headwaters Economics recently released a report that shows how it can be done, and it begins with making smart investments in fire preparedness and in changing our dangerously outdated state laws and building codes.

Many politicians are quick to argue that we can solve the wildfire crisis by increasing the pace and scale of logging projects and rolling back environmental safeguards – a concept based more in fiction than in science. 

Prioritizing, planning, and implementing vegetation treatments and prescribed fires can help make our ecosystems more fire resilient, but those things alone cannot keep communities safe. In Montana, there are currently 16,700 homes in high-wildfire-risk areas and 100,000 in moderate-risk areas. The number of new homes in these areas doubled between 1990 and 2020. In the last 15 years, more than 1,400 of those homes have been lost to wildfires, while hundreds of first responders have risked their lives trying to save them. 

Wildfire suppression costs have tracked with this housing boom. From 2016 to 2020, federal spending on fire suppression averaged $2.5 billion per year. Federal managers estimate that anywhere between 50 and 95% of these suppression costs were directly related to protecting homes. These figures don’t begin to take into account how much taxpayer money is being spent on helping communities rebuild.

Several years ago, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry adopted portions of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code, a model code intended to supplement state or local building and fire codes. The IWUIC model language establishes a set of baseline regulations to safeguard life and property from fires that move from wildlands into populated areas. But when DLI amended the model code, it removed maintenance requirements, road standards and water supply standards. DLI has made it optional for local jurisdictions to adopt and implement the amended code and won’t allow jurisdictions to implement a more stringent code. A handful of municipalities have adopted the modified code, but no Montana county has done so. The state no doubt needs a baseline, mandatory wildland-urban interface code modeled on the original IWUIC.

Montana state law also prohibits local governments from denying approval of proposed subdivisions based on their location along the wildland-urban interface. Moreover, it prohibits municipalities and counties from requiring developers to use resilient construction techniques or other wildfire mitigation measures when building new subdivisions in areas considered at high risk for wildfires.

These laws deny local communities the tools they need to protect lives and property, and they make little sense from a financial and economic standpoint. The Headwaters report found that building to wildfire safety standards costs no more than not building to those standards. During the long term, however, building to wildfire standards saves communities money. A study by the National Institute of Building Sciences determined that every $1 spent meeting stricter building codes in the wildland-urban interface communities saves $2 on existing buildings and $4 on new buildings.

We need to allow land managers to bring ecologically necessary fire back into our Western landscapes. At the same time, we need to establish a statewide building code in the wildland-urban interface, modify the subdivision review process, and promote fire-safe construction. All of these efforts could help direct new home development toward areas of lower risk, ensure buildings are constructed with wildfire in mind, keep home insurance rates affordable, and contribute to the development of road and water infrastructure that will help keep residents and first responders safe.

Aubrey Bertram is the staff attorney at Wild Montana and directs its climate and energy program.

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Aubrey Bertram
Aubrey Bertram

Aubrey Bertram is the staff attorney at Wild Montana and directs its climate and energy program.