“There is no future without fire.”

-Landscape ecologist Paul Hessburg
By: 
Marlo Pronovost
Thursday, June 21, 2018

Photo by Hanna Osgood

A helicopter flies into the Mile Marker 417 Fire last summer, which was one of Stillwater County’s only wildfires.

It’s not a question of if large wildfires will strike again. It’s a question of when and where.

Hotter, drier and windier conditions — along with an ongoing surge of people moving into forested and unprotected areas — are stretching the wild-land fire season longer each year not only in Montana, but across the entire country.

Coming off the devastating 2017 summer in Montana that claimed more than a million acres, that is not exactly welcomed news. And the winter’s massive snowfall totals and the ongoing spring rain make it difficult to think of fire conditions right at this moment.

But conditions are due to change and when they do, it will happen quickly, says Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger.

In the hopes of preparing the community for the inevitable, Cowger recently invited the public to a showing of the video presentation “Megafires,” which features the research and recommendations of Washington landscape ecologist Paul Hessburg.

Hessburg works with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and has spent 30 years documenting changes in forest conditions over the past century that account for why our forests are now experiencing so many large, severe wildfires. A megafire is any fire that destroys 100,000 acres or more.

In addition to the climate and population issues, Hessburg has found another contributing factor is an actual change in the landscape — that being “patchy” forests with open meadows as opposed to dense forests of today.

Perhaps the most significant takeaway from the video is that while Hessburg and other fire officials believe massive wildfires will continue to occur, they also believe there is hope.

“In the end, we can learn to live with wildfire in a very different way,” said Hessburg in the video presentation.

BIG NUMBERS

Fire authorities agree that between 95 and 97 percent of all wildland fires are quickly extinguished. That means it is a very small percentage of fires that are costing billions of dollars.

In 2017, $2.4 billion was spent on wildland fire fighting. In Montana, that total was $400 million.

Listed among Montana’s historic wildfires is the 2006 Derby Fire in Stillwater County, which destroyed 46 structures, burned 223,570 acres and cost $22.5 million.

CONSEQUENCES OF CALLING NATURE HOME

The migration of people setting up home in forested areas, and areas without nearby fire suppression services, is a significant contributing factor to the ongoing presence of large scale wildfires — an element called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI).

Nearly half of the Western United State’s population lives in the WUI and 60 percent of all new housing in the West is being built in these areas, according to Hessburg.

That translates into 4.5 million homes being at high risk for wildfire, according to National Wildfire statistics. In Montana, 28 percent of homes are considered at high-extreme risk.

Stillwater County follows that trend as well, with the majority of homes being located in this high-risk area.

“Any fire that escapes initial attack has the potential to threaten homes,” says Cowger, noting the one exception is the northern portion of the county.

SOLUTIONS

Managing wildfires better will come down to the combined efforts of everyone, say Hessburg and Cowger. On the suppression/prevention side of things, prescribed burning of fuels is a proven effective fire manager that is not utilized enough. Likewise, mechanical burning, which involving logging where appropriate, could be done more, says Hessburg.

On the homeowner side, people need to employ FireWise tactics, use fire resistant building supplies and take more person al responsibility in this whole scenario to help mitigate potential damage.

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