‘Mega-fires’ change landscape

‘Mega-fires’ change landscape

27 December 2009

published by www.dailyinterlake.com

USA — Towering, apocalyptic smoke columns were signature displays of nature over the last decade, as a series of huge wildfires swept across Montana and other western states.

In Northwest Montana, fires named Moose, Robert, Wedge Canyon, Brush Creek and Chippy Creek have become history, dominating news for weeks on end.

“Fires were a big story this decade,” said Steve Frye, a former commander of one of the country’s elite Type 1 incident management teams. “I do have some vivid memories of the fires of the past decade.”

For Frye, the decade kicked off on Aug. 6, 2000, in the Bitterroot Valley.

“That was the day that the various fires in the Bitterroot all came together in the perfect firestorm,” said Frye, a former chief ranger for Glacier National Park who now works for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Kalispell.

“We spent that day evacuating people from their homes … a large number of homes were lost during the firestorm,” Frye said.

The fire complex raged on for weeks, burning 307,000 acres on national forest lands and 49,000 acres on state and private lands.

It was a telling beginning for the years that followed — large fires had returned to the landscape, and Frye would go on to manage some of the biggest, including Oregon’s 500,000-acre Biscuit fire and the Hayman fire that torched 138,000 acres and 133 homes in Colorado.

In 2003, Frye was on another fire assignment in the Bitterroot Valley when he was notified of the Robert Fire that was burning toward his home in West Glacier.

“When our overhead team was in the Bitterroot, my wife and daughter were evacuated from our house in West Glacier,” Frye said.

“We used to talk about large fires being 20,000 or 15,000 acres,” Frye said. “Now we have fires that may exceed that in a single burning period.”

Another former Type 1 incident commander, Bob Sandman, said the term “mega-fires” was coined for the decade.

“We were seeing fires that were lasting for months in duration instead of days and weeks,” said Sandman, manager of the Northwest Land Office for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Kalispell.

Both Frye and Sandman agree that a drought that gripped the state through most of the decade was a major driver behind the bigger, more explosive fires. But there were other influences.

“A lot of people like to suggest we were reaping the effects of aggressive fire suppression over the last 50 years,” Frye said. “But when you dissect that a bit, and realize that agencies engaged in aggressive fire suppression from 1910 on … it was really to protect the resource so it could be managed.”

Forest management and fire suppression were supposed to go hand-in-hand, Sandman said, and in some areas forest management has been limited.

A major development in forest management has been the gradual evolution of using fire to manage forests that had been shaped by flames for centuries. Fires for “resource benefit” have mainly been limited to national parks and wilderness areas, but agencies recently have expanded the use of fire beyond those boundaries.

A change in firefighting also has developed over the last decade, particularly in Northwest Montana.

“I think we have made great strides to try to have all the various (firefighting) entities … coordinate and cooperate in a highly efficient manner, Sandman said. “When look back 10 years ago, I don’t think you could say that.”

The 2001 Moose Fire in the North Fork Flathead drainage brought with it disputes between Flathead County and its rural fire departments and federal and state agencies. But things have changed since then.

“I have seen significant improvements here in Montana,” Frye said. “Certainly that’s the case here in Northwest Montana.”

“That’s a credit to all the agencies out there,” Sandman added, “from the smallest volunteer fire department all the way up to the federal government.”

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