Stoking the fire

Tempers once again flared between Ravalli County officials and property rights activists in the Bitterroot last week, this time over updates to wildland urban interface (WUI) maps intended to better protect outlying homes during wildfire season.

County commissioners and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) will discuss the county's proposed adoption of the maps—as mandated by state law passed last year—on April 5. But skeptics on the right have launched a pre-emptive strike against the proposal, claiming it constitutes a power-grab by local government seeking to open a "back door" for zoning regulation.

Suzy Foss, a member of Citizens for Property Rights and a current candidate for county commission, expresses concern about the county extending WUI coverage to thousands of acres of private property. By placing those acres in the WUI, Foss argues the county undermines the state's emphasis on clearing forest debris on public lands.

"When they put all that private property into the WUI, they totally took away the whole intent," Foss says, "which was to give the Forest Service the opportunity to make this valley safer."

But Bruce Suenram, the DNRC's deputy chief of fire preparedness, says the inclusion of private property in state WUI maps is common because property bordering forested public land is threatened by wildfire.

"The WUI is where wildland meets the homes," Suenram says. "So it almost has to include private property."

Ravalli County Commissioner Jim Rokosh refutes the accusations that his office is using the WUI maps in any capacity other than protecting rural citizens and volunteer firefighters. The proposal is not some zoning conspiracy, he says, but rather an attempt to define the exact boundaries of the WUI. Only then can the DNRC and county decide how to prioritize protection efforts in the Bitterroot.

"It's all really about increasing safety, protection of property values and providing additional resources beyond local tax dollars to help get the job done on private lands," Rokosh says.

And, Rokosh adds, with a potentially nasty fire season looming, the sooner those maps are adopted the better.

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