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United Way Blog

From Red to Resilience: The Community-Driven Battle Against Missoula County Wildfires

On the wall behind Eric Legvold's desk, there is a map of Missoula. It isn't an ordinary map. It's brightly colored: green, yellow, orange, and red. But it is mostly red, an indication of areas prone to wildfire. These areas cover everything except the shopping mall and the airport. It is the county's ever-present reminder of the wildfire risks that threaten its communities. Risks that Eric, the Director of Impact at United Way of Missoula County (UWMC), and his colleagues cannot ignore.  

By most accounts, Missoula County is a wild country. Avalanches, flooding, and forest fires are commonplace. But it is a place gradually being tamed by the UWMC and its partners. In 2017, Missoula experienced wildfires that ranked 1 and 2 in the United States. UWMC responded by raising $200k from private donors in 45 states who could give directly to the communities they wished to help. With that funding, UWMC bolstered the HVAC capacities of local schools, offered HEPA filters to senior communities, and reimbursed those forced to evacuate for gas, accommodation, and other necessities.

Following the crisis of 2017, however, it became clear that Missoula's best chance was to move from response through recovery to mitigation and preparedness. Recovery investments helped homeowners who lost their properties pay their deductible, receive an additional $1,000 living stipend, and begin to rebuild. They assisted landowners whose property was damaged by voluntary government burning programs and supported the removal of burnt material. During the recovery phase, UWMC also had a forester on retainer who helped develop a region-specific prescription to help the ecology recover.

Wildfires are not restricted to Missoula County. Around the world, communities, and the United Ways that support them, struggle with wildfires every year. On August 8, a devastating blaze spread across Maui taking more than a hundred lives and destroying the Lahaina community. Canada too faced a dangerous wildfire season. Record heat and drought led to fires in parts of the Northwest Territories and British Columbia. In the Northwest Territories, approximately 25,900 people. were evacuated. By mid-August, British Columbia had declared a state of emergency with continued wildfires burning in parts of the province’s southern region. 

In Missoula though, a significant element of UWMC's Wildfire Readiness Strategy is based on its understanding of, and relationships with, the community it serves. On "chipper day," a representative team goes around with a woodchipper to clear the ground of down or dead material that fuels wildfires. Except, they can really only serve as chipper escorts because people in Missoula like to do things themselves. The community's connection to the land and each other cannot be overstated, which is why UWMC's Neighborhood Ambassadors are as successful as they are. Eric describes them as a cross of cheerleader and connector, trained to understand wildfire risk and serve as organic informers to their neighbors. It's a process also formalized in the free Wildfire Risk Assessments offered throughout the year.

But UWMC's work continues beyond there. The Wildfire Ready Missoula initiative emerged, embodying a strategic approach that spans mitigation to recovery. Collaboration was the key, involving public land agencies and county officials and extending to private landowners and local business owners.

The community feels the impact of these transformative efforts. More than 100 homeowners have participated in the cost-share program, giving them a proactive role in addressing hazardous fuel conditions. Assessments and grants exceeding $250,000 for specific projects have empowered landowners to reduce structure ignition potential and employ wildfire-resilient principles. It's not merely about firefighting and defense; it's about fostering a collective sense of ownership and resilience.

Residents of Missoula express profound relief and empowerment, emphasizing the initiative's role in creating ignition-resistant communities and alleviating financial burdens. One anonymous homeowner expressed gratitude for the team working on the project. They said, "These young people worked hard and were fast and efficient every day for five days. They were polite, informative, trustworthy, personable and fun to be around. We are grateful to them and for your efforts at United Way of Missoula County."

UWMC's interventions reflect a comprehensive approach that unites health, education, and financial stability, ensuring that everyone in Missoula has the opportunity to thrive. In a landscape of uncertainty, a collaborative and community-driven strategy has ignited hope, resilience, and a shared commitment to living safely with wildfire. By turning the tide on an ever-present threat, UWMC has made the red on Eric's map a symbol not of danger but of a community ready, united, and strong.