Montana Public Radio By EDWARD O'BRIEN • APR 7, 2016
The summer fire season is just around the corner, and a lifelong Montana firefighter says lots of homes in the area are at risk.
Dick Mangan owns Missoula’s Blackbull Fire Consulting business.
"Just look around the Missoula area and down the Bitterroot: Pattee Canyon, Rattlesnake, Grant Creek, the west slope of the Bitterroots. It doesn’t have to be a big fire, oftentimes, to cook off a lot of homes really quickly." Mangan explains that, for firefighters, protecting homes that have been built in the so-called wildland-urban interface demands a lot of manpower and resources. "It’s not uncommon to have a need for a single engine at every single home."
And he says firefighters won’t even try to save high-risk homes they can’t safely protect.
"We’re going to walk away from it. Trying to protect a home that’s not defensible to begin with doesn’t make good sense."
It’s not just a Montana problem. According to 2010 Census data, 99 million Americans — roughly one third of the American population — lives in that wildland-urban interface. Mangan thinks there’s mounting pressure to continue building in the interface even though our wildfire seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and burning more intensely. "Private property owners want to subdivide, builders want to build, commissioners are looking for a tax base."
National subdivision fire guidelines recommend siding, roofing, road layouts and brush-clearing limits that can help those homes survive fires.
“But when you want local control, it’s easier to waive those kind of things than try to meet a national standard," Mangan says.
Some argue that homes in the wildland-urban interface should pay higher insurance premiums because of the greater risk they present. Mangan doesn’t think that will happen anytime soon. He says far more homes are destroyed every year by common structural fires than by wildfire.
"So if you’re a risk manager, 1 percent of your problem is wildfires. If you were to put in very tough standards before you would insure somebody, you’d probably lose a whole bunch of clients. Some other insurance company would step in and pick them up."