Who should pay when houses burn?

  • Greg Tilford's house stood here, until it burned to the ground in the Bitterroot fires of 2000. Now he wants compensation

    Ray Ring
  CONNER, Montana Greg Tilford and his wife, Mary, pursued a dream when they quit their jobs as cops in California and moved here. They built a two-bedroom cabin on a forested ridgetop above Dickson Creek, installed solar panels and a garden, and launched a business selling herbal medicine for pets.

Their dream lasted 10 years — until monster wildfires in 2000 swept across a third of a million acres here, including Bitterroot National Forest and state and private land. The fires torched at least 52 homes, 23 other buildings and two sawmills. The entire neighborhood of 20- to 60-acre lots along Dickson Creek burned.

On a misty day this spring, the ruins of the Tilfords’ home still form a rectangle on the ground, amid a forest of blackened, dead pine and fir trees. Greg Tilford walks through the cabin’s ashes one more time, looking for anything of value. The flames swept over the ridge so quickly, he says, there was no time to save heirlooms, family photos or book manuscripts. Amid the dollops of melted glass and metal, a familiar shape surfaces, and he pulls it from the ashes: his old police badge, heat-warped, corroded and sooty.

"It still hurts," he says. By now, the ecosystem is rebounding with fresh growth, bluebirds, mule deer and many busy woodpeckers. But personal losses do not heal so quickly. Nor do property values. The Tilfords and most of their neighbors lacked insurance to cover all their losses.

In the aftermath of the Bitterroot fires, Tilford has become the point man for the Backfire 2000 group — 113 people and families who’ve filed tort claims against the U.S. Forest Service, seeking $54 million in damages. They say a firefighting crew lit a backfire — a routine strategy to consume forest fuels to prevent the advance of wildfire — which blew into the neighborhood, burning homes. "It was a chain of really, really stupid decisions, and negligence," Tilford says.

In effect, by dunning the federal government, Tilford and his group want taxpayers to pay the bill.

Inviting disaster

Their case looks strong. So strong, in fact, that one of the world’s toughest law firms is handling it for a percentage of any money won. The firm is Howrey Simon Arnold & White, with more than 600 lawyers spread from Europe to Los Angeles, and economists and other experts on staff. With lawyers involved, the Forest Service won’t comment. But in general, where negligence can be shown, the government can be held responsible, either in the claims process, or by lawsuits or congressional action.

Taxpayers have already shelled out more than a half-billion dollars to victims of the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, a prescribed burn that got out of control and burned more than 200 homes in Los Alamos, N.M. In the aftermath of last summer’s Hayman Fire in Colorado, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has vowed to get Congress to pay more than a half-billion dollars to people who suffered damages. That fire was ignited illegally by a Forest Service employee, and burned 137,000 acres and 132 homes.

Still, many people who move into the forest edge invite disaster. The nation’s leading expert on how wildfires destroy houses, Jack Cohen, based in the Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Mont., studied the Cerro Grande Fire and determined the victims bore some responsibility. If Los Alamos residents had taken a few basic precautions, such as raking up pine needles that had accumulated against their houses and on their roofs, then the losses would have been greatly reduced, Cohen says.

"Homeowners have the ultimate responsibility" for reducing risks in the Red Zone, Cohen reports in another study. Houses are less likely to ignite, he says, if trees and brush are thinned 100 to 200 feet out from the house, and if roofs are made of metal or asphalt shingles instead of wood shakes.

Bitterroot residents hadn’t heeded this advice. The forest lots rise steeply from Dickson Creek, and before the fire, thickets had grown after three rounds of logging. The houses tended to be tucked in the trees. The roads are narrow and winding, making emergency response difficult. Tilford says the backfire, led by 200-foot-tall flames and propelled by 40-mile-per-hour winds, would have burned the houses no matter how smartly they had been built. "Everybody up here realized the risk of living here, and we accepted that risk," he says. "What we can’t accept is the carelessness of the government."

Public is slow to catch on

Despite the alarms over recent fires, many homeowners have not taken adequate precautions, even on private land, and most local governments don’t require it (except in California, a leader in wildfire awareness). Four counties had jurisdiction where Colorado’s Hayman Fire burned, but only one had any regulations to reduce risk of home ignition, and due to loopholes, few homes had to comply, Cohen reports.

In Montana, Ravalli County has jurisdiction over the private land burned in the 2000 Bitterroot fire, but the county still has no regulations requiring homeowners to make their homes more fireproof.

"Wildfire is an ever-increasing threat, and we keep thinking that every year is a wake-up call," says Carole Walker, director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association in Denver. "Maybe some people are getting the message, but most people are not."

Generally, insurance companies are not yet charging higher rates or refusing to cover homes in fire-prone areas, because the total losses from wildfires are not yet significant compared to losses from electrical and kitchen fires. But for neighborhoods and homes that look especially risky — such as Dickson Creek — that may be changing. Insurance companies "are getting stricter about the risks they will take on," says Walker.

It may be a little more difficult for the federal government to back out of protecting — or even trying to protect — homes. But in this lawsuit-reliant age, the Bitterroot fire shows that the government may be damned for any move it makes around wildfire.