MISSOULA - We know that the 2017 wildfire season negatively affected people’s health and the economy in Western Montana.
The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce hosted an event Tuesday where researchers spoke with hundreds of Missoula-area residents with business interests about the future of extreme wildfires, and the community's role in decreasing the risk of catastrophe.
Retired US Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen emphasized that people need to get real about dealing with protecting structures in the wildland-urban interface.
“The problem we are facing is not necessarily technology. It's awareness," Cohen said. "It is the perspective that we have on how the problem occurs. We have defined it as a wildfire control problem, which we have no options. We don’t have a choice to control the extreme wildfire.”
He says we can control, however, the fuels around homes and the way homes in the wildland-urban interface are built. But private homeowners have to take responsibility to follow techniques, like the ones in Firewise training, that are proven to be effective.
Cohen says there simply are not enough resources to adequately protect homes that have not been prepared by lowering their risk for ignition, specifically in extreme fire conditions.
Retired Forest Service District Ranger Tim Love echoed these conclusions and said resources would continue to be directed to be placed where people are, but that things are changing.
“People are starting to understand that they need to do something with fuels on their property, because, like I mentioned, these are the only things that we can control," Love said. "We can’t control the weather or topography, but fuels, fuels are something we can do something about.”
This wildfire season was hard on everyone, even if your home or business wasn’t in the path of the fire. This is because of the poor air quality that came as a result of the wildfire smoke and blanketed much of the region for weeks.
Data shows that Montana’s tourism industry was negatively affected by this summer’s fires, but the problems went further than that.
Researchers say people who live and work in the area also changed their behaviors due to wildfire smoke. This cost the local economy as well, as people went out of their way to stay inside and some even missed work because of the smoke.
University of Montana economist Bryce Ward says that there isn’t good infrastructure in place now to precisely measure the cost of wildfire smoke on places like Missoula. That’s something that is currently being developed.
“But the research that does exist suggests that there are really long-lived effects, as people’s health is affected, and what happens to them as far as their productivity or their participation in the labor force,” Ward said.