Before we can stop having catastrophic summer wildfires, fire experts warn we have to change our way of thinking about them.
“This has been a choice society has made to have fire under the most extreme conditions,” Mark Finney, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Lab, told the Missoula City Club on Monday. “There are alternatives if we choose to use them, instead of waiting for fires to start and then responding to them.”
Greg Poncin, incident commander for both the Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge fires of 2017, added that 12 of the 30 largest fires in the past decade all occurred last year. While firefighters successfully contain 96 to 98 percent of all wildfires at 10 acres or smaller, 2 percent of those fires consumed four-fifths of the more than $3 billion spent on emergency response last year.
“Before Rice Ridge and Lolo Peak, the most expensive fires in the Northern Rockies cost about $25 million,” Poncin said. “Rice Ridge and Lolo Peak were around $50 million each.”
Both those fires employed huge firefighting crews for more than two months, which Poncin said greatly drove up costs. In addition, Montana’s worst fire season occurs in July and August, after the Southwest, Great Basin, Oregon and Washington have spent months depleting resources with their earlier seasons.
Finney said a century’s worth of fire research shows this region used to see a much more regular and different kind of wildfire. Those more widespread and frequent fires occurred in the cooler spring and fall months as well as the hot midsummer, and consumed tons of branches, shrubs and grasses on the forest floor. But after a century of aggressively extinguishing forest fires, that fuel buildup has increased the probability of catastrophic fires in the worst possible weather conditions.
Finney showed aerial photos of the Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge fires, indicating where the flames burned through heavily managed logging lands and uncut forest with equal ease. Then he showed the Jocko Lakes fire of 2007, which burned over the checkerboard but got held up when it hit the edge of the Boles Meadow fire of 2004.
“You can thin and log, but logging is not going to do that,” Finney said of the fire behavior. “We need fire as an essential part of fuels treatment.”
The debate also has to move beyond the “let it burn” and “put it out” divide, Poncin added. As incident commander on a wildfire, he rarely had all the resources he needed to get every goal. Instead, he had a list of high-value assets and priorities to work through. Some, like lives and houses, were things to protect from fire. Others, like fuel levels and wildlife habitat, might benefit from getting burned over.
“We have this cultural attachment to certain procedures and processes for how we address fire,” Poncin said. “Should we back up and look at that? I don’t know.”
During the City Club question-and-answer period, audience members noted part of the problem stems from regulations that expose communities to fire danger, such as growth plans that don’t require fire-safe development, or impede fuels management, like air quality standards that limit the amount of prescribed burning that can happen. Those things could be changed by policy or law, with enough public support.
“It comes down, for me, to the lack of realization by the public that we don’t have a choice about having fire,” Finney said. “We have a choice of when to have it and what kind to have, but not whether to have it.”