Great Falls, MT, USA — It is winter, there’s still snow on the ground and no smoke in the air, so now is probably the best time to have a rational discussion regarding wildfires. So it is good that the Montana State Legislature has established a special Fire Suppression Interim Committee to study these issues now.
All Montanans remember last summer’s fire season when more than 740,000 acres burned and firefighting costs topped $100 million with $42.7 million of that being paid by the state. That is an enormous expense to Montana and one that should make us stop and reflect how we might modify wildfire policies to emphasize public safety, reduce taxpayer costs, protect property, and enhance the long-term health of our forests.
Earlier this month I joined with two other local forest experts from the University of Montana and Montana State University to share some of our research and experience with the Fire Committee and to emphasize four points. In response to the increasing occurrence of fire and increasing firefighting costs, the state Legislature established a special Fire Suppression Interim Committee to review wildland fire policy.
First, expect more fires and more fires near communities. Wildland fire has always been a part of Montana’s landscapes, and several factors have coalesced to create some of the most severe fire seasons in the state’s recorded history. The occurrence of an extended drought, reduced snowpack, past timber management and fire suppression activities have acted as to increase forest fuel accumulation.
Fuel accumulation combined with the impacts of climate change, increasing length of fire season and higher summer temperatures, have resulted in a great potential for wildland fire.
When you include the increasing numbers of people moving into the “wildland-urban interface,” Montana’s future almost certainly holds more fires near communities.
Second, protecting communities from fire must remain the top priority. Montana and nearby states have well-trained, well-funded professional firefighters who successfully attacked 98 percent of all fire starts within a few hours in the Northern Rockies last summer.
Significant research by the Forest Service and other scientists, much of it done here in Montana, shows that work right around homes does the most to protect structures, provides the biggest “bang for the taxpayer buck,” and increases public and firefighter safety. Smart future planning and incentives to help communities Firewise homes and treat nearby lands must be encouraged.
Third, farther away from communities, we believe that prescribed and wildland fires provide more cost-effective and efficient ways to address fire and related issues of public cost, and safety.
“Fire use” when done under appropriate weather conditions and far from communities works to restore historical conditions to our forests and make them more resilient and resistant to future catastrophic fires; thus increasing public safety while reducing costs in the coming years.
Low elevation, dry forests such as ponderosa pine forests in western Montana that historically experienced frequent low-severity fire can be protected from stand-replacing fire by fuel reduction treatments and prescribed fire.
By comparison, higher elevation forests, far from communities like lodgepole pine forests in Yellowstone historically experienced less frequent, high and mixed severity fires may be best managed through a wildland fire use approach.
Finally, the U.S. Forest Service is being forced to focus on fire suppression and less on fire prevention and forest management. The Forest Service budget released recently proposes to spend nearly half the agency’s funding on fire-related activities but cuts programs for fire pre-emptive projects like hazardous fuels reduction and fire preparedness.
Focusing on just fire suppression during a time of increasing fire occurrence is not sustainable.
Near communities, fire suppression and fuel treatment efforts should be our focus.
Homeowners must be empowered to protect themselves by encouraging them to make their communities Firesafe.
Farther from communities, fire, both prescribed and wildland, must be used as a tool to restore forests and reduce future suppression costs.
Together, Montanans can work toward creating fire-resistant communities in healthy, fire-resilient landscapes.
Dr. Thomas H. DeLuca, a senior forest ecologist for the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, previously served for many years as a professor at the University of Montana College of Forestry where he remains an adjunct faculty member.