State Rep. Bill Harris' editorial titled "Wilderness study areas making fires worse" is an excellent example of a common misconception about wildfires. Harris assumes that if we managed lands we could preclude large fires.
He suggests firefighters were initially handicapped because the Lodgepole Pole Fire which blazed across Central Montana this summer began in a Wilderness Study Area (WSA). Notwithstanding that most of the Lodgepole Fire burned through private lands with “active” management including livestock grazing, Mr. Harris suggests that the lack of logging and active management in the WSA contributed to greater fuels and lack of roads created conditions that favored the fire’s initial spread.
Harris, unfortunately, has not kept up with the latest fire research which disputes all his assertions.
Roads increase fire starts because most wildfires begin due to human ignitions facilitated by road access. And roads create corridors for the spread of flammable weeds like cheatgrass and create access corridors for drying winds to forested areas that increase the likelihood of fire spread. So the limit on roads in WSA reduces the likelihood of wildfire ignitions and even spread.
Second, much recent research shows that “active management” of forests contributes to higher severity, faster-spreading wildfires.
For example, in the 2016 paper “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States?” the authors compared protected landscapes like wilderness areas with lands undergoing active forest management. They found “forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity (wildfire) values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel.”
Similarly, in another report: “Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final Report to Congress” the authors declared: "Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity." (pg.62)
And the Congressional Research Service (CRS):“ From a quantitative perspective, the CRS study indicates a very weak relationship between acres logged and the extent and severity of forest fires. … the data indicate that fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”
All these and many others I could cite suggests that wilderness designation is the best way to reduce large wildfires.
To the second point of Harris’ editorial, the idea that somehow wilderness designation precludes the use of modern firefighting equipment, the Wilderness Act does not ban use of machinery, helicopters and other fighting-fire measures to control wildfires.
And Harris ends his editorial by suggesting that Senator Daines' legislation that seeks to remove WSA status for some Montana wildlands would somehow reduce wildfires. Given the above and other research, the best way to preclude large, high severity wildfires is through wilderness designation.