Big Sky Resort

Researchers at the Building for Wildfire Summit on Wednesday said wildfires in towns like Big Sky don’t have to result in loss of structures or human life. Experts say homes can be built to resist wildfire.

Jack Cohen, a physical research scientist, wants people to rethink wildfire disaster.

The researcher gave a presentation at the Building for Wildfire Summit in Big Sky on Wednesday and said inevitable wildfires don’t have to result in inevitable loss of structures or human life.

“This is a condition of the home problem, not a wildfire problem,” Cohen said.

Cohen, now retired, began researching wildland fires for the U.S. Forest Service in 1976. He studied patterns of wildfires and has found a number of ways a structure can be protected in extreme conditions.

Those protections have nothing to do with controlling the flames and everything to do with how a structure is built.

Much of the summit focused on how homes can be built and designed to resist catching fire. The event was organized by the Big Sky Fire Department and Headwaters Economics through the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program. Architects, builders, government officials, fire experts and private businesses participated in the discussion.

Headwaters economist Kelly Pohl presented data showing that wildfires in the last few seasons have grown three times larger than those occurring a few decades ago. Further, the data showed that fire season is almost three months longer than it was in the 1970s due to the warming climate.

More homes are being built on land within forests and wildlands, known as the wildland-urban interface, Pohl said. She noted Montana has the highest percentage of homes in wildfire hazardous areas than any other state.

“There’s a good reason for this — we want to live in places close to the wildlands … but living there comes with risk,” Pohl said.

The subsequent consequences of that risk are an added $4 million to Montana’s suppression liability costs, state budget crises like the one Montana experienced in 2017 and added danger to human life, Pohl said.

Cohen argued the only way to mitigate those impacts is to change the way communities fight fire, beginning with a more proactive approach.

He gave examples of how places like New Mexico and California saw whole subdivisions burn down while neighboring foliage remained unscathed, meaning the houses were more ignitable than the trees. He concluded that the condition of a home — where it was built, how, and with what kind of landscaping and material — determined whether it would catch fire.

The houses that were built closer together, with flammable materials and with vegetation in proximity were likely to burn, Cohen said. Through his research, he found that the conditions within 100 feet of the home can determine its likeliness to burn.

Daniel Gorham with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety offered some examples of how homebuilders and owners can make buildings fire resistant. Those included creating a defensible space around the home where vegetation is managed, using gravel mulch instead of wood chips, installing metal gutters instead of vinyl, enclosing eaves and clearing debris under decks and fences.

The institute found that the average price of building a fire resistant home is $79, 230 — comparable to the price of a home built with traditional materials at $81,140.

Two fire experts from towns similar to Big Sky offered insights on how they combat increased fire risk to homes.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Battalion Chief Fire Marshal Kathy Clay said her county uses housing codes to review developments and then gives hazard ratings to each property. Paul Cada, wildland program manager in Vail, Colorado, said his entire town has been zoned as a wildland-urban interface and that it forces everyone to think about how to prevent fires.

Big Sky Deputy Fire Chief Dustin Tetrault said he’d like Big Sky to take similar measures, especially giving properties hazard ratings like Jackson Hole. He said his department is working on education and outreach on this issue because the county and town can only do so much to regulate home building.

Cohen agreed that education is the first step in fighting wildfires more efficiently, and that perceptions need to change.

“I have a degree of hope that the paradigm … can change from one of aversion and containment to one of compatibility,” Cohen said.

An earlier version of this story misstated a statistic about the number of homes in wildfire hazardous areas in Montana. The error has been corrected.

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2607. Follow her on Twitter @shay_ragar.

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