January 14, 2004

Last modified January 13, 2004 - 11:20 pm

Forester calls for homeowner help

HELENA - The state's firefighting bill could be cut in half if everyone who lived in the forest fringe took steps to protect their homes from wildfire, the state forester said Tuesday.

Bob Harrington told the Environmental Quality Council, a group of legislators and citizens, that Montana's wildfire costs could be reduced by 25 percent to 50 percent if homeowners in forested lands took measures to create "defensible space" around their homes.

"If we're just fighting a wildfire, we use about half the resources we do if there are (homes) involved," he said.

Fire managers use the most expensive methods to fight fires that threaten homes, he said. A fire burning in the forest far from development costs less to combat.

Harrington's statements came during a presentation to the council by several experts to find out what the state can do to cut down on the increasing cost of fighting wildfires.

Montana pays its firefighting costs from the state's general fund. Typically, that bill runs around $10 million a year. Last year, the state's share swelled to $27 million, which was paid entirely with a one-time federal windfall. The bill would have been more than $60 million if the Federal Emergency Management Agency hadn't picked up the rest of the tab.

Since then, lawmakers and officials have been trying to find out where the money goes and how the state can reduce its costs.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation formed a committee of lawmakers and others to develop ideas to spread the cost of fighting wildfires around. Their suggestions delivered Tuesday include increased taxes for those who benefit most from fighting wildfires: homeowners, timber companies, the tourism industry and insurance companies.

The suggestions, which are in the early stages, also include spending general fund money on firefighting because "obviously, we all benefit," said Rep. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, who is on the DNRC panel and also spoke to the Environmental Quality Council Tuesday.

Kaufmann has sponsored several unsuccessful bills in the Legislature to transfer more of the cost of fighting fire onto the people who live and work in the forest.

The council also heard from two people who have already tried to reduce wildfire costs: Pat McKelvey, head of Lewis and Clark County's Office of Prevention and Mitigation, and Chris Carlson of State Farm Insurance.

McKelvey told the group about efforts in Lewis and Clark, Broadwater and Jefferson counties to teach people who live in the forest fringe how to prevent wildfire on their property. His office also funnels federal money into a program that builds fire breaks around homes in the forest. So far, 300 people have taken advantage of the program.

Carlson said his company has a program in many Western states that sends fire auditors to homes in at-risk areas. The auditors identify actions the homeowner can take to cut down on the risk of wildfire. If homeowners don't make changes in two years, State Farm can cancel their insurance, he said.

Such a program is expected to expand into Montana.

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