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Montana's wildland/urban nature means significant wildfire risk for communities

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Posted at 5:43 PM, May 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-23 19:43:21-04

HELENA  — As the temperature rises and we collectively start gearing up for summer, it’s important to do your part to mitigate wildfire risk.

“Montana is a fire-prone landscape and every house that is built in Montana is at risk in some regard of coming into contact with wildfire,” says Paige Cohn, the Statewide Fire Information Officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).

A recent article from the Washington Post reported that 1 in 6 Americans reside in places with significant wildfire risk. And that within the next 30 years that risk will increase to over 1 in 5. In the West alone the percentage of the population living in areas with significant wildfire risk will increase from nearly 33% to almost 40% by 2052.

And the numbers for Helena don’t look much brighter. According to Riskfactor.com, the wildfire risk for all residential, commercial, critical infrastructure, and social facilities in Helena is at a major risk. And as you can see on this map, the percentage increase in wildfire risk probability will go up in much of the Helena area in the next 30 years.

One of the reasons for the increase in wildfires is drought. For example, half of Lewis and Clark County is currently in a state of extreme drought, and most of Montana is in some type of drought currently. This can leave trees and vegetation starved for water and more susceptible to fire. Another reason for the increase in wildfire susceptibility is what the DNRC calls Wildland Urban Interface. Basically, what that means is that as people move and build farther into areas with higher wildfire risk, the higher the risk of wildfires affecting homes becomes.

The U.S. Forest Service works to mitigate wildfire risk. The burning of excess needles and young tree saplings helps provide less fuel in the case of a wildfire.

But even with that preventative action, wildfires in the US are consistently caused by human hands.

On average, nearly 90% of wildfires between 2017-2021 were human-caused. While Cohn tells me that in Montana, that number is slightly lower sitting at 80%, it’s still more important than ever to take every precaution available to mitigate your impact.

“Debris burning, or campfires, or they’re traveling somewhere, making sure that their chains on their vehicles are tight. It only takes one spark to start a wildfire and the more we can prevent human-caused wildfires, the more we can have our firefighting resources focus on those natural ignitions,” says Cohn.

Cohn told me that most homes that burn in a wildfire in Montana never actually come in direct contact with the actual wildfire. She says that embers will travel far from the wildfire thus igniting the home. But there are ways in which you can mitigate your risk in, what the DNRC calls, the home ignition zone.

“Covering vents with mesh screening, cleaning out your gutters and roof valleys of all the leaves and needles and debris, and then filling any gaps in your home siding with, you know, quality caulk and building with fireproof materials,” says Cohn.

More information on how to keep your home and surrounding area safe can be found at MTfireinfo.org.

So, this summer, for the sake of everyone’s well-being, remember to take every fire precaution available and that you use caution when operating in dry, windy, and hot conditions.

HELPFUL LINKS:

https://www.mtfireinfo.org/

https://mwra-mtdnrc.hub.arcgis.com/