Park Creek fire

The sun shines through smoke on the Park Creek fire recently.

InciWeb photo

U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte has spent a lot of time lately talking about his fear of forest fires. That’s understandable — many people fear and misunderstand this natural process. But we are especially confused about his fear of the Park Creek lightning fire, north of Lincoln, Montana.

Gianforte has repeatedly claimed that a logging project — the Stonewall project on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest — would have stopped the Park Creek fire or substantially reduced its intensity, if a federal judge had not enforced federal laws and halted it. He is now using the Stonewall logging project and the Park Creek fire, which he recently called “catastrophic,” to bash environmental groups and promote an extreme logging bill, HR 2936, supposedly to save us all from fire.

Let’s take a closer look at the Park Creek fire that Gianforte claims to fear so deeply. A review of the fire’s rate of spread from publicly available maps (https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/maps/5367/) reveals a profoundly different picture than the one promoted by Gianforte. In the first four days, the fire moved about two miles. This equates to about one-50th of a mile per hour, or a little under two feet per minute. After that, it generally moved about three times more slowly. According to the Forest Service’s own studies, a fire spreading this slowly is very low intensity, generally with flame lengths of only about 6 to 12 inches in height (https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_int/int_gtr131.pdf), which is associated with high levels of surviving trees.

The great irony here is that, with such extremely slow rates of spread, the Park Creek lightning fire may have burned at even lower intensity than the Forest Service planned. While only a relatively small portion of the fire intersected with planned logging units of the Stonewall project (mostly along the southern boundary), the fire generally moved at its slowest there, advancing at a rate of less than 6 inches per minute in these areas, typically. Does Gianforte really believe that this is a “catastrophic” wildfire?

Gianforte promotes an extreme logging bill, HR 2936, as his answer to forest and fire management. Among other things, the bill would essentially eliminate public participation in forest management decisions on our national forests to expedite logging and clearcutting projects as large as nearly 50 square miles in size each, without limit. Even when the courts find that a proposed Forest Service logging project is illegal, the bill would prevent judges from enforcing the law, basically promoting government criminality.

All of this is deceptively packaged by HR 2936 as “forest health,” “restoration” or “fuels reduction.” Do we really believe that a clearcut 50 square miles in size is ecological restoration or responsible fire management? Never mind the fact that the most current science concludes that reducing environmental protections and increasing logging is actually associated with higher, not lower, fire intensity in western U.S. forests (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ecs2.1492/full).

The truth is that we don’t need to fear wildland fire in our forests. It is a natural and necessary part of forest ecosystems, and it creates some of the very best wildlife habitat. There are very real concerns about protecting homes from fire, but the science is clear that the only effective way to do this is to remove small trees and shrubs within a “defensible space” zone 100 feet around individual homes, and to make homes more fire-safe.

When the facts are so strongly at odds with Gianforte’s statements, it's obvious that his claims of "catastrophic wildfire" are nothing more than cynical political opportunism.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Stonewall logging project. Chad Hanson is a research ecologist with the John Muir Project, and is the co-editor and co-author of the book, “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.”

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