Future fire seasons in Montana don’t have to be as bad as this one, a new report says, if people here can learn lessons from other states and better use existing tools.
A growing population and increasing development mean that the boundary between wildland and backyards is narrowing, along with the buffer between wildland fire and the people whose lives and property are threatened by it. But opportunities to build safer communities abound across the state, too.
“We can be more likely to survive and reduce costs and risks of wildfires if we take some commonsense land use steps," said Chris Mehl, a policy director at Headwaters Economics. The Bozeman-based non-profit research group released the report Wednesday at the Montana Association of Planners conference in Miles City.
It says land use planning offers tools for both local communities and legislators. Those include development regulations, zoning, building codes, and voluntary programs like education and outreach.
Kelly Pohl is a researcher at Headwaters. "In the best-case scenario, communities that have wildfire risk would start to use all the different land use planning strategies available to make sure that we’re designing communities and building communities in the safest possible way, so that we’re protecting lives and property and reducing the risks our communities face from wildfire," she said.
The report says Montana can learn a lot from other states’ best practices when it comes to fire risk mitigation. It referenced Montana’s “unnecessarily complex and confusing statutes and administrative rules for addressing development in the Wildland Urban Interface."
Montana’s laws and regulations don’t allow for the flexibility and bigger-picture view often necessary in balancing increasing development with fire risk, the report says.
"We can do more in Montana; we can learn from other states, and we can learn from what communities across Montana are doing to reduce risk, and Montana's legislature and counties can work together to reduce some of the ambiguity and the confusion around some of the land use planning statutes in Montana," said Pohl.
While Pohl says there is no all-purpose “silver bullet,” there are opportunities at this point to improve the outlook for future fire seasons.