Nature takes many forms – not all are convenient to humankind.
In the Midwest, tornadoes rip through the countryside. In the Southeast, people learn to reckon with the occasional hurricane. Californians get jostled by sporadic earthquakes.
In western Montana, fire and smoke have become nature’s annual nuisances.
The month of August once was reserved for leisurely hikes into the high country or long river floats under a seemingly endless blue sky.
Since 2000 – the year 300,000 acres burned on the Bitterroot National Forest – that’s all changed, as fire reclaims its natural place in the Western landscape.
George Weldon believes our fire-and-smoke summers are likely here to stay.
People need to realize the environment we live in is a fire-adapted ecosystem, said the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region deputy director of fire, aviation and air. We need to live with the expectation that fire will be part of life here.
Ponderosa pine’s thick bark evolved to ward off frequent low-intensity wildfires. The cones from lodgepole pines remain closed for years waiting for the heat from a stand replacement fire to restart their natural cycle. A whole host of different forbes and shrubs thrive in the years following a wildfire.
It’s been that way since the beginning.
For almost a century, people looked at wildfire as something to be fought. And for decades, it seemed as though man held the upper hand. Short of a few unusually dry years here and there, firefighters found a way to keep wildfire at bay.
Of course, Mother Nature was lending a helping hand. For 50 years starting in the 1930s, the western United States enjoyed a pattern of unusually wet weather.
For a lot of us, that’s our frame of reference, Weldon said. We draw on that perspective when we decide what’s normal, when actually the climate change we’re seeing now may be closer to normal for this area in terms of precipitation and temperature.
Those conditions have a dramatic influence on this fire-dependent environment, he said.
The days when firefighters could make a stand and put out every blaze are gone.
Years ago, we could overpower fire when and where we wanted to, he said. That’s not possible any more.
In the record dry conditions facing firefighters this year, when a fire gets started in places packed with dense tinder-dry timber, there’s no way to stop it.
It doesn’t matter how many resources you throw up against it, Weldon said. It won’t be effective. If that fire moves into an area where the timber isn’t as thick or a place where a fire has previously burned through, firefighters might have a chance.
There are a variety of ways to create those openings in the canopy. Thinning the forest mechanically is one way. Using fire is another.
Fire as a tool to manage the forest isn’t a new idea.
Back in 1972, the Forest Service authorized its first experiment allowing fire to work its restorative magic in the backcountry of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The lightning-caused Bad Luck fire was the first time wildfire was allowed to burn naturally under an approved wilderness management plan.
Since then, thousands of acres in both the Selway-Bitterroot and adjoining Frank Church River of No Return wildernesses have burned. The result is a vegetative mosaic where naturally occurring fires perform a function that’s occurred for millennia.
In 2005, there were 45 wilderness fires in the two areas.
Some were large, some were small, said West Fork District Ranger Dave Campbell said. They were burning in all types of forest. There was ground fire doing its thing through stands of ponderosa pine � backing fires that looked like the best prescribed fire you could ask for.
Two or three blew up that same year into stand replacement fires that swept through as much as 15,000 acres.
This year, while small fires blow up overnight into infernos that threaten life and limb, about 20 wildfires are burning in the two wilderness areas. While the Forest Service keeps a close eye on their progress, there’s no effort to put them out.
This is a place where fire has a chance to perform its natural process across the landscape, Campbell said. These fires might burn rapidly one day through some thick timber, only to slow the next after burning into an area that’s already been burned over.
Last week, as one fire burned close the 600-foot-wide Macgruder Corridor Road, visitors were allowed to continue their travels through the heart of this huge wilderness area under the watchful eyes of Forest Service fire crews.
Fire has become an integral part of the wilderness experience.
Wildfire in wilderness is a wild event, Campbell said. To put a fire out in the wilderness makes this place somewhat less wild. � For many people, it’s an incredible experience to see wildfire burning in a wilderness setting.
Of course, there’s others who don’t want to get anywhere near it, he said. It’s all about expectations. Everybody’s is different.
It’s easier to let a fire burn when you have millions of acres as a buffer.
The Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness covers more than 2.3 million acres. On the other side of the Magruder Corridor, lies the 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
It’s large enough to enable us to manage it with fire more easily than smaller areas, Campbell said. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done elsewhere.
The Forest Service and other public land managers are looking for opportunities to safely put fire back on the landscape in a program it calls wildland fire use. Drawing on experience gained from years of observing wildfire in places like the Selway-Bitterroot, officials are allowing fire do its work in carefully selected areas around the region.
We started having success in the ’70s and ’80s with wildland fire and began expanding the program to other places, including areas outside of wilderness that made sense, Weldon said. We have the option of using wildland fire use on about 25 percent of national forest lands in this region.
When a fire occurs in areas designated as potentially ripe for a wildland fire, managers quickly consider a variety of factors, including location, the fire’s potential to threaten infrastructure, and weather.
Often, the decision will come to send in initial attack crews to quell the blaze. But when the situation appears right, the fire will be allowed to burn.
This is not a let it burn policy, Weldon said. We manage these fires to the best of our ability. There’s always risk, but there’s also risk of not doing anything.
There are about 50 wildland use fires burning right now in Montana and northern Idaho. So far, those fires have burned through about 55,000 acres.
As of Friday, wildfires in the Northern Region have burned about 711,000 acres. The region includes Montana, northern Idaho and North Dakota.
Weldon doesn’t look at a fire season as good or bad.
It just is.
Since we live in a fire-adapted ecosystem, it’s impossible to stop that natural process from occurring, he said. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s how the process works.
People need to understand the ecosystem we live in. We’re not going to be able to eliminate tornadoes. We’re not going to be able to eliminate hurricanes. And we’re not going to eliminate fire.
There are management opportunities for mechanically reducing fuels in strategic places, but considering the scale of the challenge facing public land managers, Weldon said, the whole tool box has to be open.
Restoring fire back to the landscape is an important tool.
There are 25 million acres of national forest lands in the Northern Region alone, he said. Mechanical treatment at that scale is just not possible.
And so unless the weather patterns change again and bring buckets full of rain and dump huge mounds of snow, smoke is likely to mark the end of summer for some time to come.
These forests have evolved with fire, Weldon said. They’re going to burn at some point. It’s inevitable.