- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — John Novotny wanted to show the homeowner what could be done to help keep his house from going up in flames in case of a wildfire.

But the homeowner declined the free assessment, leery of having several of his trees in the narrow canyon in southern Montana marked for removal.

It’s a response Mr. Novotny has encountered more than once in the past year, as the veteran firefighter has knocked on doors and urged people to build the kinds of buffers that could make all the difference in the event of a wildfire.

“Some people want to participate, some don’t,” he said. “You have to chip away at it.”

Since the severe Western fire season of 2000, officials have placed a renewed emphasis on educating homeowners about the risks and responsibilities that come with living in some of the nation’s most fire-prone areas.

There have been roadside signs and radio advertisements, home visits and town meetings with fire authorities and government incentives.

Still, a report issued earlier this year by Congress’ investigative arm said many homeowners are not taking measures to protect their homes against the threat, even though federal agencies offered financial assistance.

Reasons ranged from the time and money required to thin trees or replace wood-shingled roofs, to fears of changing the land’s aesthetics, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said.

With 8.4 million homes built near fire-prone federal lands in the past 20 years, there is a growing urgency to get out the message, said Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees Forest Service policy.

Often, it takes what fire officials call a “teachable moment” to spur homeowners to take action. In Wilson, Wyo., many residents of the Crescent H Ranch area used to have no “defensible space,” or area around their homes cleared of all flammable vegetation.

Then, a fire in 2001 forced them to flee their homes. Now, most do to some degree, though it is a struggle to get some to keep up with maintenance, said Reynolds Pomeroy, general manager of Crescent H.

“One of the things hardest to hit home with this is you can’t do this and forget about it,” he said.

Since fiscal 2001, the Forest Service has made about $270 million available in grants to help homeowners in the so-called “wildland-urban interface” reduce risks. Neither the GAO report nor the Forest Service had exact numbers on how many homeowners were participating.

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