Larry Anderson arrived early for a meeting last Friday morning at the Flathead National Forest supervisor’s office in Kalispell. It was unseasonably sunny and warm outside, but he’d spend the next three hours listening to presentations in a conference room because of something that happened last summer.
"My neighbor called me and said, 'There's a fire above your house,'" Anderson said.
Anderson lives in the hills west of Flathead Lake on a 13-acre wooded property, and he knew wildfire was a potential threat. "I was aware I lived in the forest," he said, "so there’s gonna be fires."
Last summer, the Bierney Creek fire almost burned Anderson’s house and several others' outside of Lakeside."It's kind of scary," Anderson said. "You could hear it burning. It's a lot of flames, a little bit of smoke. I started to get my truck and horse trailer ready, I have two horses to evacuate. I have some tripod sprinklers. I guess for my own piece of mind I drug a couple hundred foot hoses up the hill, not that it would have done any good or not, I don’t know that. And then I kind of just watched and waited for the fire to do what it was going to do."
He says he felt kind of helpless: "Definitely. You are. I mean, unless you do the advanced work. This is why I'm here today, to find out what needs to be done."
Sitting around the table with him are experts in uniform, who spend the entire year preparing for July, August and September. They’re here to tell him, and people in similar locations, what they can do.
Ali Ulwelling is the moderator for FireSafe Flathead. She’s a fire prevention specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. FireSafe is a group of local fire experts and property owners who meet monthly to talk about how to make homes safer.
"We've been meeting for about a year," she said. "We started out with five of us, and now we'll get ten to twelve, every month. And today, I think we had twenty RVSP to say that they’ll be here."
Members of FireSafe hope to bridge the gap between local, state, and national forest and fire agencies and homeowners when it comes to wildfire preparedness. They spend the whole year trying to reach people like Larry Anderson, who want to protect their homes but don’t know exactly what they should do.
As Ulwelling tells the group, the group’s monthly discussions are a reminder: "There are a lot of people who think about fire, talk about fire, work with fire year round."
Rich Baginski, who owns property between Whitefish and Glacier, is a regular at these meetings.
"We started out very small," he said of the early years after building his house in 2010, when he worried that landscaping too close to his house could have devastating consequences during fire season. He called Ali Ulwelling with the DNRC.
"They came out and visited us, and that kind of got the whole ball rolling on how we manage our property, and that lead to the program we have going with the homeowners association today," he said.
After that early visit and evaluation, Baginski spent three years clearing brush from within twenty feet of his house. Some of his neighbors started doing the same thing. Soon he was inviting Ulwelling and other fire experts to homeowners association meetings to connect his neighbors with grants and resources available to them.
"We had an unbelievable response, of something like 92 percent of all property owners opted to have the DNRC come in and evaluate their property, at no charge," he said.
Baginski is what Ulwelling would call a "sparkplug" - someone in the neighborhood who is really motivated to get an entire community working together to protect their houses. It looks different for any given area - some need trees removed, others need brush cleared - so the sparkplug has to be someone local.
"The way we did this was to create low barriers to participation," he said.
Baginski’s neighborhood was recently recognized as a Firewise Community by the National Fire Protection Association for the steps it’s taken to reduce its wildfire risk. None of these actions are mandatory, and not everyone who lives there is on board yet, but Baginski says he’s already seeing improvements in his neighborhood, aside from the lowered wildfire risk.
"What we've been able to show, through some of the early work we did, and a few other property owners have also done, is that unbelievable things happen," he said. "We had elk on our property that didn’t used to come in. I’ve seen weasels on my property, which I’ve never seen before. We’ve had huckleberries pop up that I didn’t even know were there."
Baginski says now is the time to start fire adaptation work, an idea repeated many times by the members of FireSafe Flathead.
To that end, the group is planning more public educational events this spring, like a presentation and Q&A called "Era of Megafires" on April 25 at Flathead Valley Community College at 6:00 p.m., and a follow-up discussion the next week.