Montana Senate Advances Fire Bills

By | January 27, 2009

The Montana Senate advanced a plan to identify and map the so-called wildland-urban interface — where homes or other development meet woodlands — despite worries the proposal eventually could harm development.

The idea emerged from a yearlong study looking for ways to reduce firefighting costs following the expensive fire season of 2007, a season that led to a special legislative session for payment of bills.

Supporters of the mapping legislation said that firefighting costs are greater in the areas where houses meet forests, and that those areas in Montana must be identified.

Sen. Carol Williams, the Missoula Democrat sponsoring the bill, said the state needs to move before it gets stuck with a federal map identifying the wildland-urban interface.

“There is a federal map that would be slightly different than what our map would be,” she told the Senate. “We thought Montana should have its own map — let Montana counties decide what the wildland-urban interface would be.”

The measure advanced on a 28-20 vote in the Senate, and will go to the House if senators pass the bill on a final vote.

Some worried information that would be assembled under the bill eventually could be used to limit private-property rights through new ordinances and restrictions on development.

“You have to remember where we live,” said Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel. “We live in a wildlife area. Downtown Helena can be a wildlife-wildland thing. I just don’t want to see it used as a tool to limit a person’s legitimate private-property rights.”

The Senate also gave unanimous support to a measure that makes certain the state has the initial attack authority on all fires in Montana. That is necessary because the U.S. Forest Service does not always act quickly enough, and small fires turn into expensive ones, supporters said.

The idea also came from the study of fire costs.

“What we also found is that many times the Forest Service tries to let fire manage the land and unfortunately it jumps its line or goes into state land or public land and then it falls onto the state to put it out,” said Sen. Rick Laible, R-Darby. “This is what the intent of the fire suppression committee was, to look for ways we could reduce the costs to the state for fire suppression.”

The bills are Senate Bills 111 and 131.

Sen. Laible also is sponsoring bills that could force insurers to offer discounts to homeowners living in the wildland-urban interface who take fire precautions, and compel insurers to educate and inspect for preparedness.

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