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Missoula County receives $1.2M FEMA grant after Lolo, Rice Ridge fires

Lolo Peak Fire
Posted at 2:03 PM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 16:03:06-05

MISSOULA — The most important things to do to protect a home from wildfire are installing fire-resistant roofs and siding, and clearing a defensible space around the home. Missoula County just received $1.2 million to help homeowners with the latter.

While talking to Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation representatives, Missoula County commissioners learned the county received a few weeks ago a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to carry out thinning and cleanup work on private property.

“We applied for about $1.2 million over the course of three years to do fuel mitigation within the home ignition zone,” Adriane Beck, Office of Emergency Management director told the Missoula Current. “This allows us to take away the hazardous vegetation within the home ignition zone to create good tree spacing and that kind of thing.”

The home ignition zone -- or defensible space -- is all the area within 100 feet of a house where dead vegetation and leaves should be removed and a good amount of spacing should exist between various trees and shrubs. Tree branches should be trimmed away from buildings and other trees.

Such a buffer of cleared space necessary to slow or stop the spread of wildfire, and it protects a house from catching fire due to direct flame or radiant heat. It also helps protect firefighters who might end up defending a house.

The county has been doing that kind of work already. For example, the Wildfire Preparedness Cost-Share Program, in partnership with the United Way and Montana Conservation Corps, helps homeowners do smaller projects to reduce vegetation and fuels around their homes. Homeowners have to agree to a 50:50 cost share.

But this is a new pot of money, a bit of silver lining that came out of the 2017 fire season. FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program provides money to states after a presidentially declared disaster, so communities can rebuild in a way that reduces, or mitigates, future disaster losses.

In 2017, Missoula County could claim three presidentially declared disasters: the Lolo Peak, Liberty and Rice Ridge fires.

Beck applied for the grant money in 2018, but due to COVID-19 and other delays, the county had to wait two years to get the FEMA award.

“The United Way program really stepped into that (two-year) void of needing to do the work on the ground with the Montana Conservation Corps crews,” Beck said. “That’s been fantastic. We absolutely want to see that program continue to thrive, alongside this program which is a little more extensive.”

The grant was intended to be good for 2020 through 2023, so Beck said she would ask for an extension until 2024 in order to take full advantage of the funding.

This is not money that landowners apply for personally. The county has a community wildfire protection plan, first developed in 2005 and recently updated in 2018, that identifies areas that need to reduce their wildfire risk. The county will use this money to continue that work.

“We’ve been doing this exact same thing for about 20 years in Missoula County using different federal funding mechanisms over time,” Beck said. “This is just a larger influx of money over a longer period of time than we’ve typically been able to amass.”

Fire districts know locations of wildfire concern and contact area homeowners about conducting cleanup of their property. If the homeowner agrees, they pay 25% of the cost or provide the equivalent in labor or supplies, and the county uses the grant money to reimburse fire districts for the remainder.

Not all the grant money will be used to clearing defensible space around homes. The larger portion of the grant, $842,000, is dedicated to clearing out home ignition zones over three years. The remaining $420,000 is for the identification and implementation of larger-scale fuel-treatments on private property without a residence or outside the home ignition zone.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.