In this summer of brutal heat, smoke and ash, in the midst of what Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has called an “unprecedented fire season,” Gary Ferguson’s new book couldn’t be more timely.
In “Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West,” Ferguson deftly summarizes the grim situation we are all confronting. He explains the science of fires, the complicated mechanics of fighting them and what happens to the land in their wake.
He also tells us what can be done to prevent fires or to lessen their severity, which might give the reader some small measure of hope. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are such that a large part of Ferguson’s message is that we are simply going to have to get used to living with bigger fires and longer fire seasons.
Ferguson, a Red Lodge resident who has written more than 20 books on science and nature, said in an interview that Timber Press, based in Portland, Ore., approached him about writing this book a couple of years ago, when the new reality of wildfires was already apparent.
“Like it or not,” Ferguson writes in the prologue, “today seventy-five million people find themselves living in the western United States in a time of fire. … If we expect to minimize loss and suffering in the decades to come, we need to start making some serious changes to get along better with wildfire, not to mention living in ways that minimize the climate shifts that are making fire an ever more dangerous force.”
The first chapter, “Living Fire” (subtitled “Not your grandparents’ landscape”) lays out the magnitude of the new normal. The term “megafire” was coined to describe fires of more than 100,000 acres, which used to be quite rare. Between 2000 and 2015, there were 10 fire seasons that saw more than a dozen megafires. And according to research led by South Dakota State University, the length of the wildfire season around the world increased by 18.7 percent between 1979 and 2013.
“As for the western United States,” Ferguson adds, “a review of Forest Service records shows that the wildfire season season today is longer than it was in 1972 by an astonishing seventy-five days — about ten weeks.”
Ferguson, a native of Indiana, said he has been interested in fire since he first came west in the early 1970s to study as a naturalist. In Idaho, his first mentor was always pointing out the effects of fire, though at the time it mostly meant appreciating how the landscape and everything on it had “just completely and beautifully adapted to fire over thousands of years.”
But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ferguson was witnessing alarming changes, including bigger, hotter-burning fires and longer fire seasons. Despite all his knowledge, he was startled by some of the things he learned while researching this book. One was that hotter fires were not only sterilizing the soil, but in some cases creating hydrophobic soils that actually repel water.
It all comes back to climate change, which has raised temperatures, reduced snowpack, paved the way for invasive species and promoted the spread of insects like pine bark beetles, whose tree-killing habits make forests even more combustible.
All of this coincides, of course, with another trend that magnifies the effects of fire: low-density rural housing developments in what is known as the wildland-urban interface — anywhere in fire-prone regions of the country “where wildland fuels intermix with human structures,” as Ferguson puts it.
About 1 billion acres, or 44 percent of the land that makes up the United States, are considered wildland-urban interface, Ferguson writes, and of that, 220 million acres are officially designated as being at high risk of wildfire.
“But there’s more to the story than that,” he continues. “Almost 40 percent of new development in the western United States is taking place in the WUI. Since 1990 the rate of conversion of wildlands to wildland-urban interface has grown at the astonishing rate of 3 acres a minute, 4,000 acres a day, 1.5 million acres a year.”
Some 120 million people, and approximately 46 million single-family houses and hundreds of thousands of businesses, are now in the wildland-urban interface. “And perhaps most incredible of all, more than 80 percent of these lands are still to be developed.”
What can be done? Ferguson said in the interview that much of the responsibility lies with county commissioners throughout the West. They have to enact laws that require anyone building in the wildland-urban interface to meet “fire-wise” standards, which call for creating defensible spaces around houses, using non-combustible siding and roofing materials and regularly removing debris from roofs and gutters.
“All of those things are really quite easy and simple, and there’s free help available for those things right now,” he said. And though Headwaters Economics is not mentioned in the book, Ferguson mentioned the Bozeman-based nonprofit research group several times in the interview, saying it has lots of resources to help communities and individuals prepare for fires.
Westerners in particular don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do with their property, Ferguson said, but the rest of the country is not going to stand by forever as billions of dollars are spent protecting developments that are poorly planned and poorly built in the heart of high-risk landscapes.
Ferguson also makes the case for managing wildlands in ways that mitigate the effects of 70 years of policies that mandated the quick suppression of all fires, which have only loaded forests with heaps of fuel. And as with so many aspects of American life, we tend to be good at reacting — spending many billions to fight fires while simultaneously paring budgets for research and mitigation.
Another difficulty is that fires will be only one of the many natural disasters coming at us with increasing frequency and ferocity, thanks again to climate change. Ferguson said he was recently supposed to be on “All Things Considered,” the National Public Radio show, “and then Harvey came along.” As in Hurricane Harvey, a natural disaster that temporarily cooled the larger world’s interest in western wildfires.
There is more, much more, in this slender book, with particularly interesting chapters on fire research (much of it being done at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory) and the perils facing modern-day firefighters.
For the rest of us, Ferguson said, the new normal is changing our relationship with the land, changing our perceptions of the natural beauty and clean air that have always drawn people to the West, and draws back those who might leave it for years or decades.
“It’s really a very profound altering of what summer is in the Rockies,” he said.