Montana Voices: Tuesday night forum will examine 2017 wildfires, and beyond

Neptune Aviation’s next-generation tanker fleet attacked the fires in California, with T-10, T-12, T-40 and T-41 combining for 30 drops on one day alone. (Photo courtesy Jeremy Ulloa via Neptune Aviation Services Facebook page)

In recent weeks, the daily news has been filled with stories of the wildfires in northern California and the rising death toll, where swathes of homes and vineyards in and around Santa Rosa have burned. New fires continue to be reported, in northern and southern California.

In Montana, we had eight-plus weeks of fire, smoke, evacuations, and lives and homes lost this summer. Thankfully, the weather has changed to cooler temperatures, rain and snow up in the mountains which have brought an end to our wildfire season, but we certainly feel for our fellow citizens on the West Coast.

We need to get better at learning to live with fire. After each damaging fire season, the finger-pointing begins and the sound bites begin to fly:

“We need to do more logging to prevent the fires!”

“We need to let the fires burn!”

“Fuel treatment doesn’t work!”

“We can prevent these fires if the agencies only tried harder!”

“People shouldn’t build there!”

Unfortunately, the retreat to simplistic rhetoric often results in people talking past each other rather than engaging in the dialogue needed to reach the solutions that help us live with fire.

What can we do to minimize the risks to lives and property, to infrastructure, to watersheds, to critical wildlife habitat, and to minimize the costs associated with the firefighting and rebuilding?

To that end, Treesource will convene a panel of nine people with expertise and experience (check out our flier, above) in various aspects of this Gordian knot and will spend a couple of hours exploring what can work, whose responsibility it is to make it happen, including individuals, neighborhoods, city, county, state and federal governments.

There is no proverbial silver bullet. This is roll up your sleeves and get to work on hammering out solutions.

To support that process, this panel can help inform the public and elected officials with a more complete foundation of knowledge. We feel this interactive forum between people attending online (we’ll take questions from our Facebook audience, too) and in the room with panelists can move us a step closer to actions that can be taken by people at all levels of this challenge.

In addition, Treesource is working on a series of follow-up articles that look at specific aspects, such as smoke impacts and wildlife habitat, in addition to the work we completed this past summer and stories we have aggregated from other news sources.

How many times must we watch and listen to the stories of grief and loss before we decide to do something about it?

It was less than a year ago that Gatlinburg, Tenn., lost 14 lives and more than 1,700 homes and commercial buildings. The totals are not finalized in Santa Rosa but are already twice that large. A 3,000-acre fire in New Jersey occurred early this summer.

Fire is here to stay and pretending it won’t happen to my community is not a strategy for minimizing risk, it is a wish that won’t be fulfilled, as the predictions for more drought and longer fire seasons unfold.

Let’s move away from playing the same sad song. Plan to submit questions and engage in the conversation at our “2017 How Do We Live With Fire” forum. I encourage you, your friends and your elected officials to join us on Tuesday evening, Oct. 24 in the University of Montana’s UC Theater from 7-9 p.m.

For those who cannot attend in person, the presentations and discussion will be streamed live on Facebook. And we will post the recording on YouTube so folks can access it as time in their schedule allows.

Dave Atkins is a forest ecologist and forester who has worked across the western U.S. for the past 40 years. He is president of Treesource and can be contacted at Dave@treesource.org.