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New research from university urges wildfire planning, resilience

by Rachel Louise Just, ABC-Fox Montana (Missoula, Mont.) |

Halfway through what's usually the busiest fire month of the year, and Montanans are coming through the 2019 fire season mostly unscathed. But the clear skies and green fields don't necessarily mean we're in good shape for future fires.

Based on new research by a team of scientists from Montana and the Canadian province of Alberta, the way wildfires are handled in communities may be in need of a major overhaul.

Hundreds of Montanans are evacuated from their homes every year during fire season. And as much as we talk about fires, usually the biggest changes come after the damage is already done.

But Dave McWethy – an assistant professor of Earth Sciences at Montana State University – and a team of researchers have a different idea: shifting the focus from responding to fire to planning far ahead for it.

For the research team, the solution is clear, and McWethy doesn't mince words in explaining it.

"We can't just continue to be doing the same thing we've been doing," he says. "The main outcome of this paper is that how we've been responding in the past is not working ... which is just to continue to rebuild the same way we've been rebuilding in the same places."

That research was published Monday morning and has two conclusions.

First, communities need to rethink how they live with wildfire.

"One of the main solutions is that we have to accept that fire is inevitable in our landscapes," McWethy says, "and learn how to live with more frequent fire but less-intense fires."

The solution for that seems counterintuitive: by fighting fire with fire.

"We know that fighting fire with fire actually works," says McWethy. "Folks that think putting out all fires is going to work ... the last 10 years should really tell us that that's not a solution. Using fire in an intentional way, so that there aren't so many fuels in the landscape to really fuel these really big fires."

Secondly, we need to re-think how communities are built.

That means building homes that aren't as close to fuels like trees and brush, building with materials that are less flammable, and removing fuels that are close to homes.

Urban areas make up a small part of Montana, but they're just as much at risk.

In Bozeman, that means putting into practice some of those ideas about how homes are built.

"So, Bozeman's started, but we're not done," says Bozeman's deputy mayor, Chris Mehl. "We just need to take common sense steps to keep us safer."

But even with zoning and construction laws, it's the people that will make a change.

"Frankly, we don't have enough staff to go around and look at everyone's house. So we need them – neighbors – working together to do work as much as the city does work," says Mehl.

Another thing research shows is that the steps you take to protect your house – anything within 200 feet of it – is the difference between it surviving or not.