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Climate change is increasing the fire risk on the mostly treeless Great Plains

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Climate change is increasing the fire risk on the mostly treeless Great Plains. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports on efforts to get prairie dwellers to adapt to the new reality.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Homebuilder Josh Poser lives in the small town of Denton, surrounded by the grasslands of eastern Montana. The last thing he thought he'd be doing is fighting a wildfire in December, but that's exactly what happened a couple of years ago as 70-mile-an-hour winds pushed flames across 10,000 acres.

JOSH POSER: Late that night, you know, we're putting some embers out in the yard and sprinkler on the roof, and they had patrols going all over the place.

BOLTON: Overnight, flames consumed Poser's house and 24 others. Don Pyrah is with Montana's state fire agency. He says firefighters were quickly overwhelmed because, unusually, there was no snow on the ground in December, and it was way too warm.

DON PYRAH: And it was 56 degrees in the middle of the night. That's not normal.

BOLTON: Researchers say the warming climate means more dry Decembers and a lot less snow cover across the Great Plains, meaning a lot more fire risk during a typically windier time of the year. University of Florida researcher Victoria Donovan led a 2017 study that found fire activity on the Great Plains has increased by 3 1/2 times in recent decades. She says that a century of fire suppression has also allowed more trees and woody vegetation to grow, making fires more intense.

VICTORIA DONOVAN: There's a lot more opportunities for these wildfires to occur and also for them to be a lot more destructive.

BOLTON: That kind of research isn't really embraced in conservative eastern Montana. Official growth policy in the county that had the big fire explicitly opposes President Biden's 2021 executive order on climate change. Mike DeVries is chief of the volunteer fire department in Denton, the town of 200 that was burned over a couple of Decembers ago.

MIKE DEVRIES: I mean, I grew up in Montana, and I know we've been through droughts. I don't know that people just attribute it to one thing.

BOLTON: But DeVries acknowledges that fire was well outside the norm.

DEVRIES: That was by far the most active and unbelievable year that we'd ever had.

BOLTON: Anika Peila with Montana's state fire agency is trying to help people better prepare their homes for fires. She says it's a tougher sell out here than in more forested parts of the state.

ANIKA PEILA: You can blame climate change, the drought, whatever you want to blame, but it ultimately starts with people's homes.

BOLTON: Peila will make suggestions for property owners, like shifting to metal roofs and less flammable building materials or cutting back trees and shrubs near their home. But there's been little interest so far.

PEILA: I feel like that's people's beauty. That's people's paradise.

BOLTON: But Josh Poser, who lost his house in the December fire, is still living with his family in a camper. He takes the threat of another wildfire more seriously now. Standing inside the unfinished walls of the new home he hopes to finish this fall, he says they are building in a more fire-resilient way to avoid losing their home again.

POSER: There will be concrete siding, metal roof. Before, we had - everything was wood - wood windows, wood siding, wood everything. So it was a recipe for disaster.

BOLTON: Those are exactly the kind of changes state fire managers would like to see more people in the Great Plains make. They're hoping others will be more likely to do the same if they see their neighbor do it first.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Denton, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.