Half a year after a memorable fire season shrouded Montana in thick gray skies, burned more than a million acres and caused tens of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls, scientists at the University of Montana are saying Montanans should get used to it.
In a lecture that about 200 people attended Tuesday night, forest ecology professor Andrew Larson was direct.
"The number one most important driver of wildfire activity in our part of the world is year-to-year climate variation," he said.
Scientists like Larson and plant biology professor Anna Sala expect climate change and hotter, drier summers to continue. And those, she says, make the fuels fire need to grow more available.
"The laundry dries faster when it's hotter; so does the forest," Sala said. "And so there's going to be more fire."
Sala's and Larson's presentations featured striking photos of last summer’s gray skies interspersed with data on forest health, and often referenced the human toll of wildland fire. But they both emphasized that fire is an integral part of the local landscape, not an enemy.
"To those of us that study forests and study the ecology, it also brings a sense of joy," Sala said. "Obviously not any joy for the property destruction and the lives lost and the health problems, but joy for the forest."
Sala explained that some plant species need the heat of a fire to release their seeds. Others benefit from the fertilizing ash left behind. Still others increase their resilience against bark beetles, while bugs thrive in dead trees and birds like black-backed woodpeckers feast on them.
But early forest managers trained on the wetter forests of Europe and the northeastern U.S. saw fire as a crisis to avert, Larson explained. That led to a century of fire suppression and huge increases in forest density as a result.
Clearing out those built-up fuels on the ground is key to restoring optimal fire regimes, Larson says, "because when you go and log, you're actually creating more surface fuels. So we have 100 years of accumulation plus the new stuff that we just put on the ground that has to be taken care of."
As people began building homes closer to the edge of forests, fire interventions have had to keep up. The percentage of U.S. Forest Service funds used for firefighting has exploded in recent decades, and a majority of those funds go toward protecting structures. Sala challenged the audience to imagine a more proactive approach.
Larson says he believes one is possible.
"Through a combination of judicious and carefully considered harvesting, followed with prescribed fire, we can restore the sort of fire regimes and fire behaviors that hopefully we can live with," he said.
Ultimately, however, Sala says success in living in landscapes where wildfires happen is as much about attitudes as about science and strategies.
"We need to continue to do science, learn about how to best tackle the issue, at the same time that we recognize the beauty of fire for the forest."
Sala and Larson’s presentation was the first in this year’s UM Alumni Association Community Lecture Series. It continues on Tuesday evenings in the UC theater until March 27.