Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Montana's wildland fire legislation

On January 4 Wildfire Today reported that the Montana Legislature's Fire Suppression Committee had forwarded 30 draft bills aimed at reducing the number and cost of wildland fires. The Legislature is in session, considering them now.

Yesterday Thomas H. Deluca wrote an editorial in the Great Falls Tribune on the topic. Here is an excerpt:
The Fire Suppression Committee identified that our best chance for protecting communities is to focus fuel-reduction work around homes. Several proposed laws would encourage fuel reduction efforts near structures and communities. Proposed regulations would encourage smart planning and provide incentives to help communities make "firewise" and thin fuels in the critical 100 to 200 feet surrounding existing homes.

Forest thinning efforts on lands far from communities is no guarantee of reduced fire threat to communities. While thinning may change fire behavior, it will not stop the spread of wildfire. Indeed under some conditions, harvesting timber can exacerbate the spread of fire by increasing wind speeds through the forest and increasing the surface fuel loading of dry, woody debris.

Worse, ill-placed fuel reduction efforts draw attention and funds away from homes and communities, putting people at risk.

That said, targeted thinning and prescribed fire use in specific forest types can reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and restore the natural resilience of some forest types to fire. However, restoration efforts cannot be done under emergency conditions and should be performed only with long-term objectives.

Far from communities, prescribed "wildland fire use" (allowing natural fires to burn where there is no threat to communities and under appropriate weather conditions) works to restore historical conditions to our forests and make them more resilient and resistant to future catastrophic fires, thus increasing public safety while reducing costs in the future.

With fire suppression efforts now consuming half of the Forest Service's total budget every year, and the Fire Suppression Committee predicting an eventual $200 million liability in a single fire season, now is the time to combat wildfire smarter instead of harder.

Allowing nonthreatening fires to burn will reduce statewide firefighting costs and allow federal and state agencies to focus efforts on the important fires that threaten communities.

Focusing only on fire suppression during a time of increasing fire occurrence will not prove sustainable or effective.

Near communities, aggressive fuels treatment and active fire suppression should be our focus. Laws should be passed that yield smart planning in exurban areas and empower homeowners to protect themselves by encouraging them to make their communities firesafe.

Farther from communities, prescribed and wildland fire must be used as a tool to restore forests and reduce future suppression costs.

Montanans can work toward creating fire-resistant communities in healthy, fire-resilient landscapes.

The state Fire Suppression Committee should be applauded for coming to this important conclusion.

Thanks, Chuck, for the tip.

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