At sunset, the forest west of Whitefish is more golden than green, the needles of western larches catching the last rays of sunlight. The glowing trees look like they’re on fire. Even now, with snow on the forecast, folks who live deep in this forest, like Ben Duvall, are still thinking about wildfire.
Duvall is the fire chief for Big Mountain Fire and Rescue, and last week, he hosted two-dozen neighbors, kids and dogs to talk about creating a fire adapted community; basically, making their neighborhood ready to withstand fire moving through it without much help from firefighters.
"As you guys requested after our last little, I guess I'd call it a scare meeting this summer, I have brought you guys professionals."
Those professionals are from FireSafe Flathead, a group of local fire experts, foresters and property owners who want to fire-adapt their neighborhoods. Ali Ulwelling, a fire prevention specialist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, is the group’s moderator.
"I would say there's definitely more interest after a big fire season, and when people are interested, we as cooperating agencies and partners want to be able to provide those homeowners, property owners with the resources that are available."
Ulwelling says she’s been holding neighborhood meetings like this all over the Flathead Valley at least weekly and fielding calls from homeowners interested in getting started. She kicks off tonight’s informal meeting with an overview of the summer.
"Fire season 2017, that's why you guys are here right now as a community talking about this and what you can do now and next spring to get ready for next fire season. And they're predicting more seasons like this one," Ulwelling tells the group.
We head outside to take a look at Duvall’s house, decorated for Halloween. Duvall quizzes his neighbors about how fire ready it is.
"What do you see that's wrong with this picture already," Duvall asks, to replies of "ghosts" ... "wood against the house" ... "pine needles."
This is the kind of stuff Ali Ulwelling is looking for when she does a property assessment, which is free for the homeowner. She pulls out a copy of her assessment form and runs through the checklist.
"Home assessments, I usually start from the top and work down. So we look at a roof ..."
The process usually takes about an hour, and Ulwelling says she inspects everything from roofing and siding materials, to landscaping around the yard, to the first hundred feet of forest surrounding the house. If homeowners want, a forester will also come out and make suggestions about which trees should be cut down to protect the home. There’s even grant funding to help homeowners pay for small logging projects, and neighbors can sometimes bundle their properties.
Mike West, an assistant fire management officer for the Flathead National Forest, says chipping away at this work a little at a time can make a big difference for firefighters.
"When it comes down to it, we have limited resources and we're trying to do the best we can with what we've got. We're gonna look for the places that we have the highest probability of success, and we're going to focus our efforts there. By doing all this work on the front end really pays dividends on the back end, because we can protect more homes with less resources if they're in a good situation."
Back inside, Ulwelling and West field questions from the neighborhood about the history of fire in their area, how their forest would most likely burn and what they should do if it ever gets so bad that they need to evacuate.
Ulwelling has practical answers.
"Pack your chainsaw. I bet most of you have chainsaws. If there's going to be a tree across the road, is that going to be the point where' you're stopped?"
As the meeting breaks up, I catch Jenny Kelley, who’s lived in the area for the past two decades. She says the constant smell of smoke this summer was a wake-up call.
"I know that's what comes with the territory, but I felt it more this year than I ever have before."
Even the fires by Missoula felt far off, until her neighbor, Ben Duvall, the fire chief, sounded the alarm.
"They're our neighbors, but they're not our backyard. So it really did take someone from our neighborhood to say hey, it can be our backyard," Kelley says.
She says after Duvall’s first neighborhood meeting, she and her husband packed up their RV and evacuated it, and she plans to spend time this fall and spring pruning trees near their house.
"It's not just once every couple years, it's something we need to think about, I would say, every spring, regardless of what the weather is."
Ali Ulwelling with the DNRC says there are no guarantees, but the idea is,"you leave, and a fire can come through, and ideally you come back and your home is still standing."