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Missoula commissioner sees community action message in Colorado fires

Posted at 6:01 PM, Jan 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-07 20:01:50-05

MISSOULA — Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier says the devastating fires in Colorado should spur our own community to greater action to make our own homes fire safe.

Strohmaier says the big take-away from the New Year's fires outside Denver, and the fires in Denton in North Central Montana is that the destruction wasn't caused by "crowning" forest fires, but by house-to-house infernos starting as grass and brush fires.

"As dramatic as some of these images are with with huge flame fronts, that's not what's starting the structures on fire and it's important for us to cue in one what those factors are and try to address those."

In Colorado, and Denton, the wind whipped fires ignited homes and other structures which spread one to another, far outpacing the capability of local fire departments.

"And I think that's an important point that we should not have lost on us, and the way to avert that is focusing on the first few 100 feet around your home. The Home Ignition Zone," Strohmaier told me this week.

Commissioners had just made that point in a December letter to the Forest Service, saying prescribed burns and other forest treatments shouldn't be the only tool. That under the community fire plan adopted after the devastating '17 fire season more focus should be on individual homeowner's being taught and accountable.

"There's good reasons to initiate fuel reduction projects on the landscape for restoration," Strohmaier observes. "But we want to make sure that folks understand is that those projects are not necessarily going to appreciably make any difference in terms of how your home is saved from fire. Where that happens is within the first 100 feet or so around your home."

The 2016 Colorado Gulch Fire and others have shown Missoula's vulnerability with planning that hasn't taken into account the "one way in, one way out problem" facing neighborhoods, whether in a canyon, or even bordering the foothills.

"There's a regulatory component, whether that's zoning regulations, whether it's building codes to ensure that within the wildland urban interface we're building our communities in a way that are as fire resistant as possible, and fire resilient as possible, but also from a programmatic standpoint," Strohmaier says. "Taking a hard look at, do we have the staff on board with Missoula County to do the outreach to the community to do the education necessary? We want to learn from that and not replicate those mistakes."