USA — Here’s a non-news flash: The science of wildfire is more complicated than the politicos say.
A new report offers a nuanced – yet pointed – analysis of a devastating range fire that scorched more than 650,000 acres of Southern Idaho sagebrush grasslands in July 2007.
Extreme high temperatures, drought, high winds and lightning strikes created the “perfect storm” that fueled the Murphy Complex Fire, said a team of university and agency researchers.
A relatively minor factor, according to the researchers, were federal grazing policies that, according to the critics, left the grasslands thick with plants and ripe for catastrophic fire. Not this time, at least. This time, nature called the shots.
The report lends some overdue context to some of the after-the-fact criticism leveled by Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Gov. Butch Otter. In second-guessing that was just about as unsightly as the fire itself, the three officeholders blamed the size of the blaze on everything from overbearing firefighting regulations to grazing restrictions.
Racing to play the blame game plays with a certain political constituency, especially when smoke and angst are hanging in the air. But it doesn’t always lead to a greater understanding of delicate resource management issues.
In fact, when it comes to the hypothesis that livestock grazing can reduce the risk of rangeland fire, the researchers came to a less-than-clear conclusion: It depends. On some public lands, under less extreme weather conditions, grazing may prevent fires from burning as intensely or spreading as rapidly. Under extreme conditions – the kind that led up to the Murphy Complex Fire – grazing may have “limited or negligible effects” on the spread of fire.
It depends. Not an attention-grabbing conclusion, but surely the correct one.
The researchers understand a few historical details sometimes lost in the rush to jump to conclusions. Indeed, fewer livestock are grazing in the Great Basin’s rangelands, but other factors have added to the risk of wildfire, such as the spread of highly flammable cheatgrass and increased human use of the public lands.
The Murphy Complex Fire was an uncommonly severe range fire, yet it might also provide a signal of things to come. “More frequent and larger fires are a growing reality in the management of Western rangelands,” says the Murphy Complex report.
This new reality demands a little more respect for the complexities of range science. Unfortunately, under the right set of conditions, there is always the potential for wind-blown wildfire and overblown rhetoric.