On Tuesday, the Missoula County Commissioners visited our studio and hosted retired U.S. Forest Service Fire Behaviorist Jack Cohen who has decades of experience studying wildfires and how they affect nearby communities.

“My principal point is that we have opportunities to keep our communities from burning down during extreme wildfires,” said Cohen. “The wildfires that we can't control and suppress are the wildfires that are initiating ignitions in communities and producing the wildland-urban fire disasters. The research that I have done indicates that we have opportunities to keep that from happening without necessarily having to control the wildfires.”

Cohen said that rather than nearby trees and shrubs, the materials present around homes are the main ignition points, such as pine needles, bark, and other easily ignited debris, which he says can be easily mitigated without a great deal of expense.

“Here's the deal,” he said. That relatively local location that determines ignition is largely private land. It belongs to the property owners, the homeowners, which means that they're the ones that have the authority to make the ignition resistance, the activities that produce the ignition resistance which are readily available, which are actually not expensive. You don't have to rebuild your house in order to accomplish that. But it takes their engagement to do it.”

Cohen said the onus is on the homeowners and neighborhoods themselves. They are the ones that are responsible for mitigating wildfire danger, not the local government.

“So what that means is we've got to start focusing our agencies and our public in general,” he said. “We need to get the perception that the community part of wildfire is a structure ignition, and collectively a community ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem.”

Toward the end of the one-hour County Talk program, County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier provided some references for homeowners to access for help in mitigating wildfire.

“If folks go to the Missoula City-County Health Department web page that is titled ‘Wildfire Preparedness’; Just Google Missoula County wildfire preparedness and you should arrive there, It’s just a treasure trove of information about getting a free wildfire risk assessment at your home. There’s also information about what Jack is alluding to in what constitutes the ‘home ignition zone’, and also what local fire departments are involved with as it relates to fuel mitigation projects on private land and more information beyond that.”

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