Montana has nearly nine million acres of forested land at very high or high wildfire risk. We all know what this means when late summer hits: a high probability of us all choking under smoke-filled skies.
Montana Can Control Its Own Wildfire Destiny
"With proactive measures like these to expand Montana’s forest restoration and wildfire response capabilities, we can take our wildfire destiny back into our own hands."
Luckily, Montana leaders are well positioned to proactively tackle our wildfire crisis, even while winter snow is still on the ground. In a new report authored by my organization, the Frontier Institute, in partnership with Bozeman’s Property and Environment Research Center, we provide four strategies Montana can use to take our wildfire destiny into our own hands:
1. Actively manage forests with prescribed burns.
Especially when coupled with mechanical thinning (logging), prescribed burns have proven to be a vital forest restoration tool to mitigate catastrophic fires by reintroducing the healthy role of low-intensity fires back onto the landscape. However, the risk of liability for unintentional damages remains one of the biggest challenges to utilizing prescribed burns. Montana lawmakers might consider adopting a negligence standard, shown to increase the use of beneficial prescribed burns by 10 percent. Another strategy could be to look at an innovative market solution to prescribed burn liability such as a catastrophe bond.
2. Continue leveraging local forest management solutions.
Sixty percent of the state’s highest priority forests for active management are on federal land. Under Gov. Greg Gianforte’s leadership, Montana has leveraged cooperative programs like the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) to greatly expand active management in the state’s federal forests to mitigate catastrophic fires. The state has already leveraged GNA to treat 26,000 acres of forest lands, and least 37 timber sales and 39 restoration projects have been completed or under contract. The state should continue this good work and aggressively pursue GNA projects that promote forest health, reduce wildfire risk and support the Montana timber industry.
3. Upgrade the Montana Fire Force.
The effects of delayed attack on unnaturally severe wildfires can be devastating on Montana’s economy, and by extension, on state revenues. Thankfully, Montana boasts a treasure of homegrown firefighting assets, including some of the nation’s largest and most capable aerial firefighting fleets. But when Montana calls, these assets may be occupied working missions in other states with earlier fire seasons. This makes Montana’s wildfire response often reliant on coordinating with multiple federal or state bureaucracies in order to fight fires here at home.
Montana should adopt a goal of becoming completely self-sufficient for wildfire response, freeing our state from reliance on other governments. One way this could be accomplished is by upgrading contracts for the state aerial fire force, putting these assets exclusively under the state’s control for the summer months. This will enable Montana to better control our own wildfire destiny and be self-sufficient in supporting aggressive initial attack on wildfires within state borders.
4. Lead a model mitigation certification program for homeowners.
Nearly 30% of Montana properties have extreme wildfire risk, more than any other state. This extreme risk can impact home insurance costs for thousands of Montanans as insurers increase premiums to compensate for the risk or decline coverage completely.
One option the state could consider is creating a model voluntary wildfire mitigation certification program to help homes remain insurable in the face of wildfire risk. This voluntary effort would help Montana avoid the costly top-down approaches of states like California, which have resorted to insurance price controls and mandates that have forced homeowners onto a bare bones state-run home insurance plan.
With proactive measures like these to expand Montana’s forest restoration and wildfire response capabilities, we can take our wildfire destiny back into our own hands.
This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers