I wrote a “Guest View” published on Jan. 1 to help us all remember that fire is a natural and historically frequent visitor in our area. The question at hand is what do we do — should we wait until fire visits on its own terms, or should we be proactive and re-establish a more open, natural forest throughout the wildland urban interface (WUI) and the surrounding lands?
Since the fires of 1910 in Montana, fire suppression has been our major land management policy. Fires used to occur frequently in lower elevations; many south and west facing slopes had a lot of grass and shrub with scattered trees. Now there are many more trees that are smaller and closer together than were present historically on those acres. This arrangement of vegetation provides a perfect runway for fire; it can easily get to the tree tops and run from tree to tree. These “crown fires” are dangerous and much more difficult to control than a fire that stays on the ground. The mountain pine beetle epidemic resulted in a lot of dead and down trees that add significantly to fire intensity, difficulty of control and the danger in fighting the fire.
The purpose of “fuel management” projects by land management agencies is to change fire behavior, not eliminate fire. If fire can be kept on the ground rather than in the trees it’s much safer and easier to confront. Fire moves quickly through grass and shrubs, but has less heat and shorter flame lengths than fire in trees. Grass fires can generally be controlled with water, retardant and fire lines. Crown fires that travel through the tree canopy have much longer flame lengths, project much more heat and throw flaming firebrands in front of them. These firebrands can be large pieces of wood and start fires of their own; “spotting” in front of a fire creates a dangerous situation. This type of fire around the WUI can have devastating effects.
Let me reply to Michael Garrity’s “Guest View” from Jan. 20, which had a number of responses to my opinion of Jan. 1. I had the privilege of working on the Helena Forest for 32 years. I was on fire crews and fire management teams; I collected and analyzed information from those forests and grasslands before, during and after wildfires. The Forest Service sometimes contracts with experts such as Steve Barrett, a consulting fire ecologist, whose data collection I discussed in my “Guest View.” Mr. Garrity maligned Steve Barrett, questioning his integrity just because he was contracted by the Forest Service. Mr. Barrett used scientific processes and his expertise as a published peer reviewed author to complete a data collection and analysis of fire history in the Crow Creek area. Peer reviewed literature is the backbone of scientific publications. Data collection and analysis at the local level is essential to validate the appropriateness of scientific publications for the area in question; this kind of data is used in management decisions, not for publications. Mr. Barrett’s study verified other, peer reviewed literature for the type of vegetation in the study area. The Northern Rocky Mountains are very different from the desert southwest. The papers that Mr. Garrity cited for fire frequency in juniper were all from the southwest deserts and don’t apply here. Peer reviewed literature such as that authored by Steve Barrett and the literature used in his study is from our area and is appropriate to cite. It appears that Mr. Garrity believes fire has no role in our area and doing nothing is his answer.
Remember the Holmes Gulch fire in the south hills in 2017? That fire was caught within the first 24 hours, thanks to 1) a change in wind direction 2) the availability of fire retardant 3) fire crews on the ground. If one of those factors hadn’t been present, there may have been a very different outcome. Vegetation changes in the WUI have been drastic. These are the areas many of us now live in. Doing nothing invites disasters like Paradise, California. Doing something can be difficult, and expensive. Fire will continue to visit our forests with greater frequency and ferocity as our weather patterns continue to change and as the fuels around us build. The expense of fighting a wildfire dwarfs the expense of creating defensible areas where fire behavior can be changed, and hopefully survived. Doing something, now, is imperative.
Lois Olsen of Helena, who retired in 2012, spent 34 years with the U.S. Forest Service and worked as a vegetation ecologist for Helena National Forest from 1980-2012. She holds a master's degree from Montana State University in land, resources and environmental sciences and is currently on the board of TriCounty FireSafe Working Group.