Solving the Wildfire Crisis Through Good Business
"While the federal and state government oversee many wildfire prevention and suppression efforts, private businesses are also emerging as much-needed leaders in the space."
Living with wildfire is nothing new for Westerners. Too many of us have had homes burned down, watersheds jeopardized, sports practices canceled due to smoke and places we love destroyed. While the federal and state government oversee many wildfire prevention and suppression efforts, private businesses are also emerging as much-needed leaders in the space. These three examples are companies doing great work to deliver private resources to help protect Montanans from the wildfire crisis:
Wildfire Defense Systems
More than three times as many houses and other structures burned in Western wildfires from 2010 to 2020 than in the previous decade. While much of the focus is on public government efforts to prevent and suppress fires, Wildfire Defense Systems is a private Montana business focused on keeping homes from burning down. This company offers private wildfire suppression services to top insurance companies at a wildfire agency scale. With a unique model able to predict which homes and communities are susceptible to wildfire risk and its own fleet of fire suppression equipment and teams of experienced firefighters, Wildfire Defense Systems is the market’s response to prevent catastrophic losses of insured properties in the event of a wildfire.
This market-based approach to wildfire risk assessment and loss prevention was applied during the 2020 Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman. Within six hours, the fire had grown to about 400 acres and was dangerously close to homes in the Wildland Urban Interface—homes insured by clients of Wildfire Defense Systems. As the fire grew to more than 7,100 acres and spread to Bridger Canyon, the company deployed three fire crews to privately protect homes in conjunction with public response teams. The risk prediction model successfully helped direct Wildfire Defense System resources to save homes and prevent costly losses and also helped to prevent further spread by adding equipment and manpower to the firefighting efforts.
Fighting wildfires is tough work. At a time when federal forest managers are having a hard time recruiting and retaining firefighters, Bridger Aerospace is a Montana aerial firefighting company that contracts with government agencies to provide firefighting and technology resources for wildfire suppression. Using the largest aerial firefighting fleet in the United States, Bridger Aerospace uses technology to map fire activities to help inform on-the-ground firefighting efforts and drops water to help prevent the spread of fires.
These private resources have been used to fight fires around the West and even internationally. Earlier this month, Bridger Aerospace planes were a valuable part of fighting the wildfires blazing through Canada and spreading smoke across the United States. As wildfires continue to threaten the West, this Montana company is highlighting the important role that private businesses can play in protecting our communities and forest ecosystems.
Even in areas where there is widespread agreement that forest management is needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, quickly getting the resources needed to start work on the ground is a challenge. Blue Forest is a company that uses innovative private finance tools to help fund forest restoration projects. Through a tool known as the Forest Resilience Bond, Blue Forest brings in private capital to cover the upfront costs of forest restoration projects on public lands. The investment provides a market-rate return to investors by allowing beneficiaries, such as water and electric utilities, water-dependent companies, state agencies and even the Forest Service, to share the costs and potential benefits of restoration projects.
Blue Forest is starting work on a new cross-boundary Forest Resilience Bond pilot project in Montana that includes parts of the Mud Creek Project on the Bitterroot National Forest as well as private lands in Ravalli County. The company is working with the U.S. Forest Service, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Pheasants Forever and private landowners in a very high-risk wildfire area to bring in private investment to help reduce that wildfire risk. Solving the wildfire crisis will require a wide range of funding and partners, and Blue Forest emphasizes the role that private partners and investors can play.
Combatting the wildfire crisis will require innovative approaches. These three businesses represent the essential role of the private sector in preventing and responding to catastrophic fires.
Hannah Downey is the policy director at PERC (the Property and Environment Research Center) in Bozeman.