FireSafe Helena helping homeowners protect homes from wildfire

The new program in Southeast Helena is funded through a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant


Independent Record

HELENA, Mont. -- A new program in southeast Helena aims to help homeowners make their homes safer from wildfires.

FireSafe Helena, managed by the TriCounty FireSafe Working Group, is funded through a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant. The program's first phase is offering free non-binding assessments to homeowners in the project area, looking at the safety of building materials and landscaping. In the second phase of the project next year, the grant will offer cost-sharing opportunities to make needed safety upgrades.

In the past, TriCounty has focused on fuels mitigation for large forested properties in Helena's South Hills. FireSafe Helena takes a new approach, assessing risks to homes themselves with the grant funding "home hardening" such as replacing shake roofs, wooden siding, fences or decks that could ignite a home in a wildfire.

Program coordinator Amy Teegarden, Helena Fire Chief Ken Wood and AmeriCorps member Matthew Kohr met at the home of Julie Reardon on Helena's Upper East Side last week to perform an assessment. One mission of the program is to help educate homeowners on not only building materials, but to help entire neighborhoods understand wildfire behavior and how homes become at risk. It is often not a wall of flames that burns houses in cities, but embers that can blow from a mile or more away and ignite flammable materials such as pine needles loaded in gutters or a fence abutting a home.

"FireSafe Helena is really unique because it's smaller properties and it's not the wildfire that poses the threat, it's the ember showers and the ember brands from the wildfire," Teegarden said. "You don't have live in a forest to be in a wildfire, that's one of our themes. It's about how to create a fire-adapted community."

When it comes to emergency response, municipal fire departments like Helena's do not have the resources to fight a slew of fires started by embers or patrol the city looking for starts, Wood said.

"We don't have the resources and I don't know of any city fire department that does have the resources to deal with a fire like that," he said. "That's why it's so important to do your part so that hopefully we decrease the number of those fires if embers are coming from a mile or 2 away."

Along with a goal of 200-300 home assessments, the team also wants to look at the wildfire safety of places such as long-term care facilities where it is nearly impossible to move the vulnerable residents, he added.
Reardon and Kohr circled the home, noting concerns verbally such as wooden siding and a patch of dry grass in a common area. Embers often mimic snow accumulation, he said as he collected answers to myriad questions that go into a report for the homeowner.

During the fall and winter, the team will go back to FEMA with the assessments and develop an overall program proposal. Then in the spring, they will come back to homeowners with proposals and cost-share opportunities. While the exact percentage will be determined following the assessments, the program initially estimates the grant could cover up to 65% of home hardening upgrades up to $25,000. The homeowner match may also be considered through in-kind labor costs. Project implementation could begin next spring and must be completed by December 2022.

"FEMA recognizes that the more we can do in front of the fire, the more apt we are to have less damage," Teegarden said. "They say that every dollar spent on prevention, that's $4 saved in suppression or emergency response."

Through a partnership with AmeriCorps, she would also like to explore the possibility of getting a crew out to help homeowners with physical limitations.

The current project area was identified through a mix of fire modeling and due to the number of homes abutting wildlands. It includes homes south of Broadway Avenue, east of Davis Street, west of Interstate 15, and north of South Hills Drive.

Both Teegarden and Wood said they would like to see the program persist into the future, with Teegarden noting potential expansion into other at-risk areas of Helena.

Wood said he could see the city adopting the program based on how important he sees it.

"My goal would be to have a passion in the fire prevention bureau that would focus on this program," he said. "It would be ideal for the city to take some real ownership of it."

For more information or to apply for an assessment, go to http://tcfswg.org/firesafe-helena/ or email questions to apps@tcfswg.org.
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(c)2020 the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.)

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