091617-mis-nws-fires-end

A pile of fire hose burned in the Lolo Peak fire sits on a road near Lolo recently. Rain, snow and cooler weather have brought an end to many of the active firefighting efforts in Montana.

We may not know how to live with wildfire, but the question won’t go away for lack of answers.

A panel of experts from insurance agents to national forest supervisors and fire ecologists agreed that people in the forested West need to make choices about how much smoke they can stand, how much work they’re willing to do, and what they’re willing to lose for the opportunity to live in a beautiful landscape. The gathering, put on by TreeSource.org, drew more than 100 people to the University of Montana on Tuesday night.

“The ecology just is,” UM fire ecologist Phil Higuera answered to the question ‘is there too much fire ecologically or socially?’ “You may lose some of the things you’re used to. Is that good or bad? It’s the humans that value what’s out there.”

But the ecology is changing, panelists agreed. This summer, Western Montana experienced possibly its worst fire year on record in terms of smoke intensity and length of fire activity. The dry conditions and fuel buildups that contributed to that record-setting season look likely to persist as the climate gets hotter and drier. And they amplify past conditions humans set up for themselves.

“Remember that 100 years of fire exclusion is a form of active management,” U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station Manager Colin Hardy said. “Don’t be in denial that we’re mitigating deliberate choices from before.”

That presents some hard choices for people who want to build houses in forests or communities in valleys with poor air circulation. The Rice Ridge and Liberty fires around Seeley Lake poured unprecedented levels of smoke pollution into people’s lungs and livelihoods all summer. Farmers Insurance Agent Emily Rindal said it affected more than just the tourism business.

“The evacuation warnings affected 1,090 residences,” Rindal said. “It left everyone feeling distress, anxiety, fear, anger — a lot of people were just always short-tempered.”

And because the fire threatened so much of the community, no insurance companies would write policies while conditions remained extreme. That meant no one could buy or sell property for weeks.

“Air quality was the worst in Missoula County since we started counting,” Missoula County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield said. But it wasn’t just the flames on the horizon: Coefield showed satellite images of fires in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho all contributing to the bad summer air.

That smoke problem can be mitigated by prescribed burning and thinning activities. But those must be carefully timed in spring and fall when conditions limit fire spread. UM air quality chemist Bob Yokelson said prescribed fires burn 17 times less pollution per acre than wildfires do. But Coefield added that public land managers often lack the funding to prepare such treatments or light them when air conditions are favorable.

Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey noted that his agency has lost 40 percent of its non-fire personnel since 2000. While it has boosted some of its firefighting capacity in the same time, it’s nevertheless limited in what kind of prevention work it can do without those resources.

“Fire has always been here,” Avey said. “We’re the ones that have come.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.