Living with Fire I: The evolution of wildfire suppression began in Missoula

Smoke from burnout operations rises above the Madison River during the Maple Fire in Yellowstone National Park, September 10, 2016. (Neal Herbert/National Park Service)

Editor’s Note: As the West enters another fire season, where, how and why federal land management agencies decide to suppress wildfires and implement fuel reduction projects will be hotly debated, as residents, environmentalists, agency heads, and politicians tangle with how much, if any, thinning, logging, and prescribed burning is appropriate to mitigate fire risk.

Three trends play an important role in the discussion: hotter and drier conditions wrought by climate change, which have led to an extended burning season and a spike in fires deemed “historically significant ” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; a near doubling of the number of homes built in areas of Montana with high wildfire risk since 1990; and nearly 900 structures lost to Montana wildfires in the past decade, despite ever-growing spending on suppression, to the tune of  $397 million spent suppressing Montana fires in 2017, including an all-time high of $68.2 million from state of Montana coffers, which contributed to a significant state budget shortfall in 2018. 

In this three-part series, Montana Free Press examines how federal land management agencies have approached wildfire in the past and highlights key public and private sector developments that could change how we engage with it in the future. This first installment outlines a handful of events and policies that have shaped the wildfire narrative in the last century.

(Montana Free Press) Shortly after its establishment in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service underwent a literal trial by fire when a conflagration of fires in Montana and Idaho known as the Big Burn of 1910 consumed 3 million acres, killing 86 people (mostly firefighters) and nearly reducing the town of Wallace, Idaho, to ash.

Most of those acres burned in a two-day period, August 20-21, fueled by hurricane-force winds that sucked entire trees from the ground and turned them into airborne blowtorches. Impacts were felt far and wide. Smoke turned the sun an eerie copper color in Boston, and soot fell on the ice in Greenland. “Not ever before had a forest fire been given headlines so big or so black,” popular historian Stuart Holbrook wrote a decade later.

“It [was] literally seared into [the Forest Service’s memory] — in large part because many of the subsequent chiefs came out of Missoula and fought that fire,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College and author of Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy.

Damage sustained in the 1910 fires helped the fledgling Forest Service, Montana’s largest federal land manager, rally public and political support to invest in more personnel, equipment and infrastructure (roads, lookout towers, and ranger stations) to help spot and fight wildfires in the ensuing decades. Through the war years, fire was largely regarded by the Forest Service and American public as a destructive force to be subdued.

In 1935, the Forest Service instituted a “10 a.m. policy” directing fire managers to contain all human-caused fires by 10 a.m. the following day. Even in the 1930s, the blanket suppression strategy had staunch opponents, including Elers Koch, a forester and former Lolo National Forest chief who’d fought the 1910 fires and found full suppression to be expensive, ineffective, and unmerited in some steep, dangerous landscapes of northern Idaho lacking high-quality timber.

“After years of experience, I have come to the considered conclusion that control of fire in the backcountry of the Selway and Lochsa drainages is a practical impossibility. I firmly believe that if the Forest Service had never expended a dollar in this country since 1900 there would have been no appreciable difference in the area burned over,” he wrote in a 1935 issue of Journal of Forestry. Miller said Koch’s position was so controversial that the editor of the Journal of Forestry felt compelled to write an editorial opposing Koch’s views.

The Forest Service largely stayed the course of the 10 a.m. policy, but it wasn’t until the agency began employing emerging technologies including dozers, aircraft, and flame retardant in the 1950s that it found greater success meeting that objective, Miller said.

By the 1960s, the ecological role of wildfire in fire-adapted landscapes had gained greater recognition among land managers. In 1968, the National Park Service began allowing natural ignitions sparked in favorable conditions to run their course, and used prescribed fires to meet management objectives.

Glacier National Park was inundated with smoke the last two summers. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The more hands-off fire management that Elers Koch supported was vindicatedin 1972 when the chief of the Forest Service approved the agency’s first wilderness fire management plan, which gave fire managers authority to let lightning-sparked fires burn in a portion of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, typically under predetermined conditions and within a specified geographic area.

The National Park Service policy faced a political test in 1988, when 1.2 million acres burned in and around Yellowstone National Park during an exceptionally hot and dry summer, leading some frustrated residents in nearby communities to petition park administrators to scrap the park’s 1972 policy allowing some natural ignitions to burn.

Efforts to reframe the narrative about those fires, including a February 1989 cover story in National Geographic documenting the regeneration that followed the flames, met with some success, Miller said, catalyzing a sea change that took about a decade to soak into public consciousness.

“There was this much more ecological view of fire — that fire was a good thing. It’s not destructive, but actually it was regenerative,” he said.

Even with evolving attitudes, much of the West’s forested landscape is still subject to what ecologists call a fire deficit. Fewer acres have burned than would be historically expected, likely due to decades of human activity, i.e., wildfire suppression, logging, grazing, and the conversion of landscapes for agricultural use, according to a 2015 article in the journal Ecosphere. Given how many acres of the West have been gobbled up by wildfire in recent years, the idea of a fire deficit might come as a surprise, but long-standing policies geared toward extinguishing fires have led to higher fuel loads, amplifying fires. Researchers working with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station cite aggressive wildfire suppression as “one of the major factors that drive the increased extent, intensity, and damage associated with the small number of large wildfires that are unable to be suppressed.”

A 2001 update to the multi-agency Federal Wildland Fire Management Policyrecognized that Fire Management Plans should be “based upon the best available science,” and lists ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, pinyon/juniper woodlands, and tallgrass prairie as fire-adapted ecosystems where over-suppression of wildfire has been a “destabilizing influence.” The report describes the challenge of reintroducing fire to these landscapes as “both urgent and enormous,” while also recognizing that suppression has benefited humans by reducing air quality impacts, for example.

Almost 20 years later, managers and policymakers still struggle to balance theecological benefits of fire with unwanted human impacts, particularly given development in the Wildland-Urban Interface. Miller stresses that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will work across diverse landscapes, but says there’s plenty of thoughtful science supporting less suppression in favor of planning measures to prevent home losses and better human adaptation to wildfire.

Missoula County Commissioner David Strohmaier is one elected official in Montana trying to move the needle on wildfire preparedness with more comprehensive land-use planning.

“Fire is here, and it’s here to stay,” said Strohmaier, who authored Drift Smoke: Loss and Renewal in a Land of Fire after spending 15 years in fire management. “I’m confident [that in Missoula] we can make some meaningful difference in resetting the narrative related to how we live with fire.”

Coming Saturday: Part 2 of Living with Fire will look at the challenges and benefits of land-use planning policies in Missoula County aimed at minimizing losses in the Wildland-Urban Interface. This story originally appeared online at Montana Free Press. 

Living with Fire II: Missoula among communities working to become ‘fire-resilient’