(HELENA) After almost a year of work, a group of national consultants is giving Lewis and Clark County leaders advice on how they can address wildfire risk through their land use policies.
The county was selected through a competitive national process last year to participate in the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program. Communities that take part get guidance on changes they can make to improve their preparation for fires.
“We look at our recommendations as a road map for the future,” said Molly Mowery, president of Wildfire Planning International, a consulting firm based in Colorado.
The CPAW program is a partnership between Wildfire Planning International, a consulting firm based in Colorado, and Headwaters Economics, a research group in Bozeman. It’s funded primarily by the U.S. Forest Service and private foundations, so the guidance comes at no cost to the community.
Since the CPAW kicked off its work in Lewis and Clark County last fall, they’ve been in the area twice, meeting with fire chiefs, county planners and other stakeholders and looking at conditions around the area. They went through every aspect of land-use planning in the county. On Monday, they unveiled their findings and their advice.
The consultants reported a number of challenges in the county, including a growing number of homes in wildfire-prone areas, private lands next to national forests, difficult access and poor road conditions, difficulty recruiting volunteer firefighters and inconsistent water supply.
They put together four main recommendations for the county. First, they suggested updating the tools used to assess wildfire risk in the county. They say new scientific information is now available that could provide a more accurate picture of where fires are most likely to occur.
They also recommended strengthening regulations on new subdivisions. While the county already requires developers to address fire safety in their plans, the consultants found several areas where the current rules were unclear, difficult to enforce or in conflict with other regulations.
The team suggested the county adopt the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code, which sets out construction standards for buildings in wildfire-prone areas. They said that would ensure that construction on all lots, not just those in new subdivisions, followed best practices for fire safety.
Finally, the consultants recommended the county update all of its growth policies to specifically address the wildland-urban interface and plans for recovery after a serious fire. The county did include a chapter on fire protection when updating its growth plan for the Helena Valley, but that analysis hasn’t been extended to the rest of the county yet.
The CPAW team’s recommendations are entirely voluntary. It will be up to county leaders to determine whether to put them into action, and if so, how to do it.
“They’re certainly not the level of detailed guidance that will be required for the planning staff and other stakeholders to utilize, but they’re a first start in the next stage of the process, which is exciting,” Mowery said.
The CPAW program was launched in 2014. Since then, the consultants have worked with more than a dozen communities around the country, including Missoula County and Park County in Montana.
Mowery said Lewis and Clark County is already off to a strong start.
“They’re already taking steps to address wildfire now,” she said. “We’re offering them guidance to really strengthen and improve that.”
If you want to learn more about the consultants’ recommendations, you still have an opportunity. They will give presentations to the Lewis and Clark County Commission Tuesday at 9 a.m. and to the Tri-County Fire-Safe Working Group at 11 a.m. Both presentations are open to the public.