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Missoula County to USFS: More emphasis on home ignition zones

Lolo Peak Fire
Posted at 10:15 AM, Dec 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-24 12:15:16-05

MISSOULA — In a letter to the US Forest Service (USFS), Missoula County is asking the Missoula Ranger District to make a greater emphasis on home ignition zones and the role they can play in preventing the devastating fires that have plagued other Western communities in recent years.

Relying on forest management alone may leave some with a false sense of security, the county said.

“There might be good reason to do those forest treatments, for landscape ecology or restoration purposes,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “But nobody’s hope should be elevated to think that’s going to appreciably do anything to save your home in a fire.”

The county’s letter — addressed to the Missoula Ranger District — relates to the Wildfire Adapted Missoula plan being developed by the Lolo National Forest. Among other things, the plan calls for a number of forest treatment projects across more than 455,000 acres, including 177,000 acres on USFS lands.

Several demonstration projects have already taken places, such as the Grant Creek Fuels Reduction project, the Marshall Woods Forest Restoration Project, and maintenance work in Pattee Canyon.

The plan’s environmental assessment was recently released and the county has commented throughout the process. The USFS recently issued its Record of Decision, though the county believes it doesn’t give adequate play to home ignition zones.

“There’s 100 years of institutional inertia focused on fire control and some fundamental lack of awareness,” Strohmaier said. “The sort of community destruction we’ve seen, whether it’s those abutting forest lands or in Denton, where there’s not a tree in site, has much more to do with what you do in your home ignition zone than some of the forest treatments that are sometimes promised as a means to protect your community.”

The county believes the agency’s Wildfire Adapted Missoula plan must parallel efforts to restore the role that fire plays on the landscape. The county also acknowledged that new tools are needed as climate change unfolds.

That may challenge the “institutional culture” of the Forest Service, the county wrote.

“Largely, we commented on the importance of home ignition zones relative to community wildfire resiliency,” said county planner Chet Crowser. “It’s fair to say we haven’t felt like those concerns have been heard as well as we’d like, but the conversations have moved forward.”

Strohmaier and Jack Cohen, a retired fire scientist with the Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, have been vocal in recent years in asking the Forest Service and the public to abandon their expectations that 100% of all wildland fires can be doused 100% of the time.

Rather, they’ve worked to shift the conversation to the role home ignition zones play in the equation. In Cohen’s research, he’s seen houses burn to the ground while nearby trees are still green and wooden fences still stand.

Lofted embers can spark new fires outside the burn and neglecting the home ignition zones can lead to disaster. Keeping fires outside the urban interface may rely more heavily on preparation than on large-scale forest treatment plans, Strohmaier said.

“There’s still an opportunity to have some of that language included in a modified record of decision,” Strohmaier said of the Forest Service plan. “There’s also some other things on our end we can start working on, like updating our Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which admittedly might need to have the dust blown off it a little bit.”