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Wildfire assessments key prevention tool for Montana homeowners

Lolo Peak Fire
Posted at 3:28 PM, May 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-29 19:20:21-04

MISSOULA - It's never too early to prepare your property and home for wildfire season in Montana.

While state and federal fire managers do their part to reduce risk, there's an increasing importance on property owners taking steps to deal with the danger, keeping themselves and firefighters safe.

Raging firestorms, burned homes and displaced residents. Western fire seasons are alarming, seemingly with no safety.

"That can feel overwhelming. And so, what we like to do is we like to walk around with a homeowner and tell them some things they can really work on right now today,” said Chris Johnson with the Missoula County Fire Protection Association (MCFPA).

Organizations like the MCFPA have been ramping up "community assessments", where firefighters talk with homeowners about fire risks.

“Would be a fire that had gained some steam and was throwing ember showers down into the bottom of the valley here. That's what I would say is probably the least likely, but highest probability to impact your home,” Johnson told firefighters during a training session.

"Think about a million buzzing bees, little embers that land on your house just every now and again, in short duration,” Johnson told MTN News. "The Roaring Lion Fire down in Hamilton, you can get ember showers up to half-mile away on a big day like that.”

“When those columns really stand up and they'll build, they're a tremendous force of lift, and so you'll get pinecones, limbs from trees from 1/2 mile away. And all these really fine needles on some of these trees, they're very aerodynamic,” Johnson added.

The day we stopped by there was assessment training for firefighters taking place. It’s an educational effort, with confidential data only for the fire departments. But pointing out less obvious risks, like attic vents and vegetation close to homes.

"And I look at your house and I'm not seeing shrubs up against it. Not seeing vegetation touching it, anything combustible,” Johnson explained to the trainees. “Like some people have a cedar fence that goes and touches that the house. Those can be a fuse to the house."

"Well, it's real rewarding for me to get that validation that all the work that I was doing is setting an example for my friends and neighbors here,” said Grant Creek homeowner John Langstaff.

Mapping identifies problems but also features critical if a fire breaks, like where to get water, whether homes have proper addresses, and room to park engines. "And that's less stress on me. Less danger to firefighters, good for everybody all around,” Johnson said.

Langstaff, a retired Missoula firefighter, hopes everyone takes action.

"Well, something as I see it really frightened me. Because I would not want to be subjected to fighting a fire in some of these less than protected homes,” Langstaff said. “They might as well just write them off if they're not going to do the work. But you know, you're not protecting just yourself, you're protecting your neighbors."

"So, these assessments are absolutely critical to get the community involved and to inform responders who are coming up when the day is done. When the day is bad,” Johnson concluded.

For more information about assessments, check with your local fire department.

Dennis Bragg's report on fire property assessments was part of our MTN Original report "Living with Wildfire." Watch the full special below.

Living with Wildfire