Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2020.

Wildfire Prep Pro

The wildfire preparedness coordinator for Missoula County, Montana, talks about his role, recent projects, and what people often get wrong about prepping for wildfire


Wildfire can wreak havoc on a community. There is perhaps no better example than the Camp Fire, which tore through Paradise and other northern California towns in November 2018, killing 86 people and razing 11,000 homes. According to numbers published by the Washington Post, four more people died from the Camp Fire than from Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane that slammed into the coast of Texas in August 2017.

Despite this, in many towns, counties, and states across the country, wildfire preparedness is not handled by the same emergency management officials who are involved in the preparation, response, and recovery around events like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. Instead, wildfire is more often seen as a fire service or land-management issue. “Very few offices of emergency management, whether state or local, seem to engage in wildfire to any great extent,” says Michele Steinberg, director of the Wildfire Division at NFPA.

But wildfire shares more similarities with a natural disaster than it does a structure fire. At the same time, though, it isn’t as predictable as, say, a hurricane tracking in an expected direction up the coast, and wildfires can last much longer. That’s why wildfire is arguably the most complicated event for public safety professionals to deal with. And as the planet continues to warm, experts predict the frequency and severity of wildfires will increase, too. In a landmark report published in October 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that even if the most ambitious climate change goals are met, the global risk of wildfire remains high.

Coincidentally, October 2018 was also the month Max Rebholz began working as the wildfire preparedness coordinator in Missoula County, Montana—a position based within the county’s Office of Emergency Management and created because of wildfire’s unique and complex nature. “It was the first position of its kind in Missoula County,” says Rebholz, who previously led a vegetation management crew in the Gallatin National Forest and responded to oil spills in the Pacific Northwest.

With wildfire and its impact increasingly pushing their way to the forefront of the nation’s psyche, positions like Rebholz’s are expected to become more common. NFPA Journal recently spoke with the 26-year-old Wisconsin native about the uniqueness of his role, what he’s been up to after a year and a half on the job, and what he considers some of the major misconceptions about wildfire preparedness.

Most jurisdictions don’t have a dedicated wildfire preparedness coordinator, nor are wildfire preparedness efforts even carried out by emergency management departments. Why are things different in Missoula County?

I think the reason for having this role is because wildfire and people’s experiences with wildfire are just so ingrained in the minds of residents in Missoula County. Having a dedicated position was needed, especially following a string of wildfires we experienced in 2017. Often, fire departments and emergency managers are overburdened or don’t really have the capacity to fully focus on wildfire preparations. The community members have a lot of questions, and they want to do what they can to be best prepared and involved. So having a specific role like this makes sense.

It’s interesting that you say wildfire is “ingrained in the minds” of people in Missoula County, because I think a lot of people don’t think of Montana when they think of wildfire. They think of places like California or Australia.

I get that, but western Montana and eastern Idaho have always had a legacy of wildfire. The Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Today, Montana is in the 86th percentile of wildfire likelihood, which is higher than Arizona, and Idaho often has the highest likelihood of wildfire in the country. So we experience a lot of wildfire effects in Missoula County.

You mentioned some 2017 wildfires. Can you expand on that?

Most wildfires here are small, with 97 percent of them being under 10 acres. But 2017 was an exceptional year. We saw more than 230,000 acres burn in Missoula County alone, which is an area about one-third the size of Rhode Island. And during the months of July, August, and September, some towns within Missoula County actually had worse air quality than in many highly polluted cities, like Beijing, China. That’s not what you would imagine when you think of Montana air.

What does a day in the life of a wildfire preparedness coordinator in Missoula County look like?

I mostly work with landowners across the county to ensure they know how to prepare for wildfire. This includes performing individual wildfire risk assessments, going out to their properties and walking them through concepts like the home ignition zone. If they have forested land, it means teaching them what resources are available to help offset some of the costs of doing mitigation work such as forest thinning or prescribed burns. I also work with insurance agencies and real estate offices and nonprofits to ensure that their clients are knowledgeable on how to best prepare for wildfire. And lastly, because my position is actually jointly funded by the Forest Service and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, I work to coordinate land management agency projects.

Are there any projects you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of?

Absolutely. One of the larger projects was creating a new county-wide mitigation program for residents within the wildland/urban interface (WUI) in Missoula County. It’s called the Missoula County Home Ignition Zone Program. This is a collaborative effort between the nonprofit United Way, Missoula County, and the Montana Conservation Corps. The crews do things like remove combustible vegetation adjacent to structures, clear out gutters, and create noncombustible zones around structures. They’ll do forest thinning and install screens below deck areas if needed. They basically try to mitigate as many vulnerabilities as they can.

Max Rebholz serves as the wildfire preparedness coordinator in Missoula County, Montana. More communities could benefit from creating a position like his, 26-year-old Rebholz says. (Photo courtesy of Max Rebholz)

Do you run into community members who are resistant to what you’re trying to do or simply don’t understand it?

For sure. Sometimes I’ll visit with a landowner and they worry I’m going to tell them, ‘You have to cut down every tree.’ That’s not the case. It’s hard to change that narrative. People want to strictly focus on their forest conditions or vegetation, but we say, ‘We will address that, but that’s not the primary objective here. We need to first focus on your home—the first five feet, then work our way out.’ Changing that narrative is a lift, but it’s starting to happen through increased education and outreach efforts.

Are there any future projects you’re looking forward to in particular?

Yes, we have a local organization of realtors called the Missoula Organization of Realtors. They usually hold an event called the Parade of Homes Tours, where they feature unique architectural designs or landscaping techniques. This year the focus is going to be on ignition resistant construction.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work in any way?

The last few months, with my position being in the Office of Emergency Management, it was kind of all hands on deck to help with response. So my role changed slightly. But now, more than ever, I think it’s definitely important for the responsibility to be on individual property owners in the community to do what they can to best prepare and have a heightened sense of awareness of their own local conditions.

Looking at how other areas are approaching wildfire safety, is there anything that makes you scratch your head?

When you look at how wildfire risk is mapped on the landscape, it doesn’t accurately display the vulnerability of structures. We as humans just want to continuously disincorporate humans as part of the natural landscape. But I think if we don’t incorporate homes as part of the landscape, we’re missing a huge chunk of risk. I understand evaluating the ignition potential of individual structures would take an incredible amount of data, maybe some intrusive data, but I don’t think we’re truly representing wildfire risk in communities unless we incorporate the ignition potential of the structures versus just focusing on vegetative burn potential.

How has NFPA helped you in your role?

I frequently visit the NFPA website, and I think the Firewise program gives communities status and recognition. It gives folks a sense of pride and awareness that they live in a fire prone environment and that they have an obligation to maintain Firewise status. We definitely encourage communities to pursue that. During the coronavirus pandemic, we sent out a virtual home assessment toolkit and that included a link to some NFPA resources. 

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer at NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images