Experts: Humans must learn to co-exist with fire in an increasingly flammable world

Janet McDonald shot this time lapse of the Lolo Peak fire’s run in mid-August, sharing it on social media.

Earth is a flammable planet. It’s been that way for 320 million years, since vegetation first took hold on the land.

“So fire is this natural phenomenon,” said Phil Higuera. “But when it interacts with humans, it is truly a disaster.”

Thus the eight experts on everything from insurance to incident command who gathered Tuesday night in Missoula to reflect on the 2017 wildfire season – and on how, after 320 million years, humans can learn to live with fire.

Higuera, a fire ecologist at the University of Montana, said science is a great tool, but the conversation really has to be about human values.

There are science-based strategies for restoring Earth’s fire-adapted ecosystems, he said, but nothing will happen without widespread acceptance of the problem and its solutions.

“We have deliberately chosen to exclude fire from the landscape for over 100 years,” said Colin Hardy, a program manager at the Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula. “We’ve kept fire away.”

That decision came from humans, not from science. The consequences have been calamitous.

In the northern Rockies, many of the forests were fire dependent – “which means literally that,” Hardy said. “They need fire.”

Without regular visits by what were once low-intensity fires, the forests grew into thickets which now – when sparked by summer’s lightning or humans’ carelessness – burn with a previously unimaginable ferocity, claiming lives and landscapes.

Those who would block any human role in restoring these fire-dependent forests are forgetting that humans created the problem by removing fire, Hardy said.

“We have actively, deliberately made choices to exclude fire from landscapes every summer, every year for over 100 years,” he said. “So if there is now pushback to actively do something to change that, let’s not be in denial that we are trying to mitigate some of our deliberate choices from before.”

And the situation is only going to become more dire as the planet warms and the West grows ever warmer and drier, Higuera said. That, too, is a human-caused phenomenon.

“There are no places on the planet where humans haven’t had an impact,” he said. “Our fingerprints are everywhere.”

There’s also no denying how tough it was to live in Missoula County this past August and September.

Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist at the City-County Health Department, suffered herself even as she warned residents to stay indoors – or, at one point in Seeley Lake, to leave altogether if they were in an at-risk group.

“We were surrounded by fires. There was no good direction for the wind to blow,” she told nearly 200 people gathered for the two-hour discussion sponsored by Treesource.org, a new online magazine that covers forests and forest issues from the perspective of sustainability.

“The smoke in Seeley Lake was the worst we have ever seen,” Coefield said. “Thank goodness that it snowed in September, because those fires were going to burn until it snowed.”

The same was true in Missoula, she said. “Day after day after day.”

Emily Rindal watched her neighbors in Seeley Lake grow increasingly anxious, depressed and afraid. “A lot of people were very short tempered.”

Their lives and livelihoods were turned upside-down for six weeks.

“Our businesses rely on the summer tourist season,” said Rindal, an insurance agent. When the Rice Ridge and Liberty fires forced closure of the lake (so it could be used by firefighting aircraft), 1,090 homes were either evacuated or put on warning status, and smoke filled the narrow valley at densities never before considered much less endured, the visitors stayed away.

Even Rindal’s business came to a standstill. “I couldn’t write policies for homes that were threatened by the fires,” she explained. “So buyers couldn’t buy homes and sellers couldn’t sell.”

While no homes were lost to the two fires, a young firefighter from Missoula – 19-year-old Trenton Johnson – was killed by a falling tree.

That’s a loss that every Montanan, and every Westerner, should feel, said Bill Avey, supervisor of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, who along with Northern Rockies Type I incident commander Greg Poncin brought the perspective of firefighters to the table.

The strategy employed by fire managers is evolving, said Poncin, who has 37 years in the firefighting business. “We cannot overwhelm a fire any longer. It is imperative that we take a sophisticated approach.”

Not only are wildfires larger and more intense, but firefighting resources are thinner, he said. Agency budgets and workforces cannot keep pace with the enormity of these 21st-century wildfires – and there is little or nothing left at the end of fire season to spend on the forest restoration work that could give firefighters a better chance at containment when the next flames come.

Already, federal agencies have spent $2 billion this year fighting wildfires, and the season isn’t over in California, Poncin said. Firefighters have lost their lives, residents have lost their lives. Landscapes have been forever changed.

“We need to overcome either the distrust or the misperception, misunderstandings of what the agencies are trying to accomplish; or maybe not accomplishing, not doing,” Poncin said. “It’s that stress, it’s fear, frustration, anxiety that fuel the emotions of those impacted. It is really up to us to determine, or come to terms with how we’re going to co-exist with fire.”

Forest thinning and prescribed burning would make a difference if widely employed across the Western U.S., those on Tuesday night’s panel agreed. But there are significant challenges and complexities that make solutions difficult to employ – and there is an immense acreage to be managed.

Matt Arno has seen thinning and burning succeed as a forest restoration strategy, both in his fresh-out-of-college work as a private forestry contractor and now doing similar (albeit public) projects for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“We must take responsibility for making our homes and our property fire safe,” Arno said. “We could get to a place where these wildfires are not so expensive, where there are not such significant impacts.”

Arno said he, too, was once distrustful of forest thinning – or logging – projects. That’s why he formed his own forestry business after graduating from the University of Montana.

“But now, all significant public land management projects are collaborative efforts,” he said. “The quality of work shows the value of this collaboration.”

In the Missoula area alone, he said, residents can look at successful forest restoration work in Marshall Woods, Pattee Canyon and the Frenchtown Face.

“But we are not treating nearly enough acres to reduce the wildfire risk,” Arno said. “All logging needs a fuel reduction component” – work consciously designed to lessen the risk when a wildfire reaches that stand of trees.

Hardy, Arno and Avey all provided examples of fires and forests where earlier fuel-reduction projects made a difference for firefighters and communities. But one study showed 190 million acres of federal land in need of thinning and burning, and private lands cover hundreds of millions more acres.

Private landowners could make a significant difference by clearing 150 feet of defensible space around their homes, Hardy said, citing pioneering work by Missoula fire scientist Jack Cohen.

“Jack’s work showed that radiant energy from a fire is not sufficient to light a home on fire if it’s more than 100 feet away,” Hardy said.

But that buffer must be there, he said, and the homeowner must have taken the precautions necessary to protect against ignition by flying embers: No wood stacked against the side of the house. No wicker lawn furniture on a wooden deck. No shake shingles on the roof. No straw broom leaning against the back door.

Then the surrounding forests have to be thinned – and, importantly, subjected to low-intensity ground fires after thinning, Hardy said.

“We have to go in and make these forests work the way they did naturally,” he said.

“Fire has always been here,” Avey said. “We are the ones who have come. We need to do what is required to fix things.”

Every year since 1994, between 17 and 20 firefighters have lost their lives on wildfire duty, he said. This year, dozens of citizens have died as well, trapped by flames that moved so quickly and unexpectedly they could not escape.

“All of us, as a society, have a moral responsibility to minimize the exposure of firefighters and the public,” Avey said. “We have to recognize that responsibility and act on it.”