Roaring Lion fire viewed from Murdochs

The Roaring Lion fire blew up as seen in a view from the parking lot of Murdoch's Ranch & Home Supply in Hamilton. The fire prompted evacuations in the area filled with dozens of homes.

Last summer's devastating wildfire season, and how communities can decrease the risk of such catastrophic fires, was the focus of “Rising From the Ashes: Growing Out of the 2017 Fires," the 2018 State of Missoula Commerce Report presented Tuesday.

The event, hosted by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce at the Hilton Garden Inn featured four presenters, including Jack Cohen, a retired wildland fire research scientist who worked for many years at the U.S. Forest Service fire research laboratories in Missoula.

“We are faced with a wildfire paradox,” Cohen said. “Our management policy of wildfire exclusion and control has increased the potential for more intense and extensive wildfires during extreme conditions.”

But, he said, fire has been the principle disturbance factor in the development and maintenance of most North American ecosystems since the end of the last Ice Age. He also said that it’s a myth that fires were better controlled in the past.

“There were no good old days of fire control,” he said. “Wildfires are inevitable."

Cohen likes to point to a picture of massive Ponderosa pine trees in the Bitterroot Valley taken in 1909, before humans started drastically suppressing wildfires in the United States.

The picture shows the huge trees surrounded by almost nonexistent underbrush. Cohen contrasts that with a picture taken roughly 80 years later. The huge pines are gone, and instead the landscape is filled with smaller, more dense Douglas fir trees and much more brush. Walking through it looks impossible.

After the Great Burn of 1910, which torched about 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy to try to prevent and battle every wildfire. It was standard policy to try to put out fires during the night so they would be controlled by 10 a.m. the next day.

Cohen estimates that before widespread human intervention 200 years ago, between 44 million and 106 million acres burned every year in the United States due to both lightning and human-caused fires. Between 2005 and 2015, the total area burned in Alaska and the Lower 48 states was about 9.6 million acres per year, about 10 times less than what would naturally occur, even taking into account current land use.

The result, some say, is that much of America’s forests are now overgrown, a tinderbox waiting to explode like it did this past summer, when 1.2 million acres burned in Montana. More than 160,000 acres of that was on the Lolo National Forest, as the Rice Ridge fire choked Missoula, Seeley Lake and many nearby towns in western Montana with smoke that drove away tourists and caused widespread health problems.

The 2017 wildfire season was the state’s most expensive on record at roughly $400 million total ($62 million of which was state money), prompting cuts to other state-funded services.

But Cohen said most home destruction can be prevented without eliminating or controlling wildfires.

“Many of the benefits we get (from fires) are non-short-term commodity kinds of benefits,” Cohen continued. “So we need to incorporate that economically with regard to how we spend our money and with how we begin to take an approach of compatibility to the inevitability rather than the illusion of control.”

Cohen was joined by Tim Love, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger for the Seeley Lake Ranger District, Julia Altemus, the executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association and Bryce Ward, the associate director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

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Love told the crowd of over 300 that fire suppression costs have topped $5 billion in the United States since 2000.

“We have warmer and drier conditions, and people can debate why that is, but it is,” he said. “We have seen declines in snowpack, earlier runoff and changes in fuel complexion. We were so effective in suppressing fires after 1910 that there are more trees per acre. We’re dealing with a lot more fuel.”

Ward said last summer’s wildfires had a devastating economic impact on Montana. For example, he said a study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana estimated roughly 9 percent of the people who had planned to come to Montana canceled due to the smoke and 7 percent shortened their stay.

“That’s not trivial,” he said. “That’s a loss of several hundred million dollars (in tourism spending).”

Montana hosted a record 12.4 million nonresident visitors last year, who spent $3.04 billion while they were here. The majority, 46 percent, came July through September, when the wildfire smoke was at its worst in western Montana.

Ward said that Montana’s air pollution during bad wildfire years compares, on some days, to some of the worst-polluted cities in the world, including Beijing.

“Air pollution causes a lot of heart attacks,” he said. “But a lot of the biggest economic costs come from people avoiding things like normal outdoor recreation or staying home from work.”

One study found that wildfire smoke reduced the annual income in the United States by $100 billion in 2010, Ward explained.

Altemus, as the leader of an organization that advocates for timber mills, said that Montana mills produced about 300 million board-feet worth of timber last year, compared to more than a billion decades ago. Just 10 years ago, the number was at 800 million.

She said Montana grows seven times more trees than are harvested, and called out litigation from environmental organizations as one reason why mills can’t find enough trees. She also said wildfires shut the mills out of the forests last year.

“We are collaborating with the environmental folks to find some common ground and resolve those issues,” she said.

Cohen said wildfires don’t burn houses as a tsunami of flame, but usually through burning embers that don’t even torch the surrounding vegetation. Often, pictures of destroyed neighborhoods also show lots of green bushes and trees nearby that are left unscathed. He said people should focus on building fireproof housing rather than focusing efforts on trying to prevent or fight all wildfires.

“What if houses are ignition-resistant?” he asked. “Instead of having fire response resources overwhelmed trying to protect houses, we can address other problems. Why don’t we consider this a home ignition problem instead of a wildfire control problem?”

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