The recent Camp Fire that burned Paradise, California, to the ground rises concern about the fate of Montana communities like Helena, Missoula, Bozeman, Libby, Whitefish, Big Sky and many other mountain towns vulnerable to similar unstoppable blazes.
What is going on?
Under extreme fire in weather, you cannot stop a wildfire. And extreme weather is occurring more frequently due to climate change.
What has driven the massive wildfire in California are extreme weather conditions. These factors include drought (California is in the midst of a thousand-year drought), high temperatures (California had the warmest summer in 127 years, which of course dries out all vegetation), low humidity (at the time of the Camp Fire ignition there was extremely low humidity of less than 5 percent) and finally, the most significant factor in all large fires is wind.
The wind was pushing the Camp wildfire, which consumed the city of Paradise, at a rate of up to one football field a second! Indeed, within 12 hours, the fire traveled 17 miles and had burned a phenomenal 55,000 acres.
In photos of Paradise, one notes that there are many green trees, indicating that the actual wildfire did not so much enter the town as there was an urban house-to-house fire. What burned the city down were embers blown onto flammable surfaces, of which there were far too many in Paradise. Burning homes put out much higher heat and embers than a forest blaze. Paradise burned down house by house in a domino pattern.
Some suggest these extreme weather events and extreme fire weather is the “new normal.” It's the new "abnormal" because it is almost entirely due to accelerated human CO2 input into the atmosphere.
Extreme weather means extreme fire behavior. The idea that we can influence fires by logging the forest (or raking) is delusional. Beyond the fact that thinning and even prescribed burning can often increase flashy fuels like grass and shrubs that rapidly grow back on such sites, there is the probability factor.
Studies have demonstrated the odds of a fire encountering a treated forest stand in the time when it "might" provide some benefits is extremely small — about 1-2 percent. And the chance that a fire burning under extreme fire weather will encounter a treated stand is many times smaller — well below 0.1 percent.
The only strategy that has been shown to work most of the time is the reduction of the flammability of homes and community. But these measures must be mandatory. If you put a metal roof on your home or clean needles from your gutter, but your neighbor does not, and the neighbor's house ignites, your house may still burn.
In the long run, the only measures that will successfully change the "abnormal" conditions are for society to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Without such changes, we will see many more Paradise tragedies.