MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. – Wildfires are going to happen more often in the mountain West, and dealing with them is going to be increasingly difficult, according to a professor of fire ecology.
“We can expect more fires, not less,” said Bill Romme, of Colorado State University. And the demand to protect lives and private property constrains the ability to let fire play a natural role, even though ecosystems depend on periodic fire.
Romme was part of a panel of scientists and land managers that addressed a scientific conference Tuesday, here in the headquarters of Yellowstone National Park.
He said that within a few decades it’s possible to see the “build-out of essentially all the private land” in the greater Yellowstone area, which is about one third privately owned.
Firefighters “can’t protect us in all circumstances,” he said.
“As soon as you get houses in these forests, there’s just no way you’re going to restore the natural role of fire,” added Nathan Korb, of The Nature Conservancy of Montana.
Wildland firefighting is a hugely expensive and generally controversial undertaking, especially when blazes turn huge.
Letting fires burn, even in relatively isolated places, can be politically difficult.
“When you start playing with fire in Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies, it’s really a crapshoot,” said Bob Barbee, who was superintendent of the park when a third of it burned in 1988.
Prior to that season, park officials had let most fires burn for 15 years. They averaged 250 acres and there was no controversy.
But in 1988, the June rains didn’t come, Barbee said. Fires broke out in and around the park, the rains still didn’t come, and weather systems brought a series of dry windstorms.
“It became a nightmare without end,” he said. “Endless days of worsening conditions” that were filled with “frustration, fear and anger.”
Politicians called for Barbee’s head, some people called park workers pyromaniacs, uninformed reporters were getting the stories wrong and there were signs around the park sneering at the “Barbee-cue.”
By mid July, the Park Service had abandoned the let-burn policy, but even $100 million and 9,000 firefighters couldn’t do much. The fires burned until autumn snows finally snuffed them.
And in Yellowstone, most of the burned forests were uninhabited, unlike most of the rapidly growing counties around the park.
Today, millions of young trees are rising among the burned snags.
“To see an ecological process on a grand scale” like that is something that only happens once in every three or four lifetimes, noted Don Despain, a plant ecologist in the park for 25 years.
To add further complications, western pine beetles are killing vast swaths of forests all over the West.
“The current outbreak might be unprecedented,” Romme said.
How all those dead trees will affect fire behavior remains to be seen.
“I don’t believe we have the answer to that,” said Dan Tinker, a botanist from the University of Wyoming.
The newly killed trees provide fewer of the fuels necessary for crown fires, once their needles fall off after a couple of years, Despain said.
Some people maintain that beetles are thinning the forests, a job that would be prohibitively expensive with mechanical means, Romme said, adding that he isn’t sure if he buys that “outrageous” concept.
Wildfire isn’t going away, and when conditions are right, the fires will get huge, the panel agreed.
And when they get big enough, there isn’t much that can be done.