Friday, September 2, 2016

Fighting Wild Flames: A Perceived Enemy of Our Own Making?

While I greatly appreciate, respect and admire the bold efforts of wildland firefighters, the wildfire situation in the West — at least here where I live in Montana — is greatly misunderstood and more complex than most people realize. In many cases, past and ongoing efforts to fight and suppress these fires have worsened the situation.

Our western forests evolved with, adapted to and depend on fire; fire is essential to the health of these forests. Different forest types evolved with various, differing fire regimes. For example, our low-elevation ponderosa pine forests were shaped by frequent, low-intensity natural fires that burned out the understory of Douglas-fir and grand fir, recycled nutrients, and created and maintained grassy pine savannas critical to deer, elk and other wildlife. The large pines have thick bark that make them resistant to fire. Our high-elevation lodgepole forests, on the other hand, evolved with and depend on less-frequent, high-intensity, “stand-replacement” fires that recycle and renew the forests every 100 years or so. (The serotinous cones of lodgepole require fire and extreme heat to germinate.)

We have drastically altered and disrupted the natural ecology of these forests. In the low-elevation ponderosa pine forests, for example (where most towns, communities and homes exist) past cattle grazing reduced the grasses, forbs and other “fuels” that once carried the cleansing, low-intensity fires. The logging and high-grading of large pines diminished the presence of fire-resistant trees, and the suppression of fire allowed for an understory of thick firs to replace what was once open pine savannas.

These thick, dense forests have become weakened by the over-competition for sun, nutrients and water (very limited in the arid West) — creating vast amounts of forests that are now highly-susceptible to disease and insect attacks, such as mountain pine beetles. Climate change — which has resulted in less snow, earlier snow melt and more drought — has exacerbated the situation. We now have large expanses of forests made up of dead and dying trees. The “prefect storm,” of sorts, for the large, frequent, high-intensity fires we see today — fires that, in some places, are larger and more intense than what naturally occurred.

It’s nature’s seemingly harsh way of correcting our mistakes. Unfortunately, it can have negative consequences for people.

Add to all this the growing numbers of people moving to places like Montana and building homes in these drastically-altered, fire-prone, fire-dependent forests. This is akin to building homes in a flood plain. It’s not a matter of “if” the wildfires will come — it’s a matter of “when” and “how big.”

In this new, modern-day West most people have little understanding of forest ecology and the risks and potential consequences of their actions and decisions. Manny refuse to even take simple, common-sense precautions that can reduce the risks. A lot of folks want to “keep” the forests around their homes “as they are” (not understanding the dynamic, ever-changing nature of forests) and oppose science-based efforts to thin forests, return low-intensity fires and restore forest health. The situation has also made it difficult, if not impossible, to allow necessary fires to burn.

So the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal and state agencies spend an obscene amount of money — and firefighters risk their lives — to save homes that have been built where they shouldn’t be while keeping forests less-healthy and perpetuating the problems.

What would really help is to learn about forest ecology; support efforts to restore forests; stop the development occurring in fire-prone, fire-adapted forests; make room for and allow for some wildfires to burn, and require those who do live within these forests to implement actions, such as thinning, to reduce the risk to themselves and the brave firefighters who risk their lives fighting a perceived “enemy” of our own making.

We need to learn to live among the forests we love while leaving room for the wildfires that sustain them.


  1. I believe you meant exacerbated or perhaps you were exasperated....Good piece but I would add as long as we don't allow fire to do the job in the WUI (and that's really not an option adjacent to private land unless we want enormous lawsuits and settlements) we need to pick up the slack. And yes that means using chainsaws and equipment to reduce fuels even if the land is roadless. The Roaring lion fire changed intensity when it encountered stands on private ground that were thinned since the 2000 wake up call. I still prefer the sound of chainsaws carrying out thoughtful silviculture to air tankers and helicopters.
    I say this as an advocate for allowing fire in Wilderness - but the WUI is not and should not be Wilderness.

    1. Thank you for your comments Dave - good points. With your tremendous experience and knowledge, I value your opinion on such matters and would follow your lead -- even if it's exasperating! :-)