Fire solutions depend on industry, understanding and politics, experts suggest

The Roaring Lion fire in Hamilton pictured in 2016. Extreme conditions and prolonged fire suppression resulted in the fire’s rapid growth, experts said Tuesday. (InciWeb photo)

When asked what Missoula could do to reduce the impacts of wildflire on the community, the answers offered Tuesday by a panel of speakers were as diverse as their views on the causes and cures of wildfires.

While some opinions were rooted in science and others in economic gain, none came with the political muscle to implement solutions. That will likely come as momentum turns to one side or the other.

“The No. 1 way to deal with wildfire is to start facing reality and losing our perceptions and illusions that we can exclude and control it,” said Jack Cohen, a retired fire scientist. “We need to realize the realities of ecological fire. I’m not talking about some save-the-planet notion, I’m talking about human quality of life with regard to maintaining our ecosystems in a resilient fashion.”

The question closed Tuesday’s forum, “Rising from the ashes: Growing out of the 2017 fires,” hosted Tuesday by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce.

In response to an audience question, the Montana Wood Products Association said it was supporting a number of bills before Congress, in part to access more timber and limit the litigation it blames for a decline in timber production.

While association member Julia Altemus didn’t identify any bills by name, she urged members of the Chamber to support the industry’s cause as it looks to return to its pre-recession output.

“Oftentimes, when a fire is seen as happening, it affects your pocketbook and ability to breathe and people pay attention, but as soon as they (the fires) go out, they forget,” said Altemus. “Other issues like immigration and taxation come to the forefront and these other issues go away, but they’re not going away. I hope you’ll stay engaged and be educated and have your voice served.”

Other panelists, including retired Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love, urged others to read and get involved with updates to Missoula County’s Wildfire Protection Plan.

Bryce Ward, an economist with the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, added that smoke is often more costly than fire in its impacts on human health and the local economy.

“The smoke is going to happen, the question is how we deal with it,” said Ward. “From a health perspective and an economic perspective, this is a natural disaster happening. We have to build up the infrastructure in a way that reduces the economic impact.”

Ward said research is under way to identify the full economic impact of wildfire smoke. As it stands, he said, extended periods of smoky air cause economic losses in terms of medical visits, time missed from work, a loss of output and negative migration.

“Wildfire smoke reduces annual U.S. income by 1.3 percent, or $100 billion in 2010,” he said. “It has health effects and it’s bad for our economy. It may also have a migration effect. People may ultimately decide not to live in that place anymore. It’s another thing we’ll be tracking over the long term.”