Driving through Glacier Hills, Rich Baginski is quick to point out the changes he’s helped bring to this gated community near Hungry Horse.
“When we first moved into the neighborhood, we did not have good signage on the roads, so the reflective signs have gone in,” he says. Easy to spot even in poor visibility, they mark most homes and three helicopter landing areas. Pointing to mowed strips along his street, he explains that “We’ve done some work with the developer to widen the accessible area here, so it’s safer for fire trucks to maneuver.”
In advance of future wildfires, Baginski and his neighbors have also created low-flammability buffer zones around houses, increased fuel mitigation work, and gained Firewise certification for their neighborhood. While none of these steps will prevent future wildfires, Glacier Hills residents hope they’ll protect their houses when one breaks out.
“It takes a lot of time to go through and do the work that needs to be done,” another resident, Jerry Jones, told the Daily Inter Lake. “So the time to get started is now, not when the fire’s already breathing at your back door.”
Baginski had little experience with fire management when he moved here from Cincinnati in 2010.
At a Tuesday event organized by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, he told attendees that his work in the area began when he asked Rick Moore, one of the department’s service foresters, to prepare a Wildfire Risk and Forestry Health Assessment, a free service offered to homeowners.
Based on his recommendations, Baginski, who calls himself the “sparkplug” for this effort, began fuel mitigation work. A once-dense thicket in front of his house is now a thin stand of trees.
Other homeowners took notice. By 2014, 92 percent of Glacier Hills properties had received similar assessments. The following year, its homeowners’ association established a “Firewise Advisory Team.”
The National Fire Protection Agency awards Firewise status to communities that obtain risk assessments, use them to form action plans, and take other fire preparation steps.
Fifteen Montana locales have earned the designation. Glacier Hills joined their ranks in 2016 and continues to thin the neighborhood of potential fuel.
“50 percent of properties have had mitigation work done, so it’s a real success story,” he told guests at Tuesday’s event.
The keys to that “success,” he continued, included starting on a small scale, building the effort around the theme of protecting property investments, and taking advantage of publically available resources.
A cost-sharing program run by the Flathead Economic Policy Center will cover 75 percent of homeowners’ fuel mitigation costs.
Baginski acknowledged that the Firewise designation doesn’t make a difference for their insurance rates, but he’s “very hopeful” that it eventually will. Meanwhile, Jones said that “nothing’s really been put to the test” by a fire yet. And even if these changes prove effective, they may have been relatively easy to make in Glacier Hills, which has just 16 houses and 52 total properties.
Nonetheless, recent fire seasons are spurring more Montana residents to prepare.
Another of Tuesday’s guests, former hotshot firefighter Tai Foley, owns Safe Lands Forestry and has helped with Glacier Hills’s mitigation work. He told the Daily Inter Lake that “in the last few years, there’s definitely been an increase” in business.
He views coordinated, Firewise-style approaches like Glacier Hills’s as the right one.
“If you have one big barrier,” he explained, “you’re gonna have a better chance of surviving an incident than if you’re just a standalone by yourself.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.