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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Get Used To Wildfire, And Rethink 'Natural Processes,' Panelists Say

Across the state this summer, tens of thousands of Montanans had to face the challenge of living with big wildfires. Some people lost their homes, two firefighters lost their lives, and businesses, schools and individuals were impacted, in ways ranging from the mildly inconvenient to the life-changing.

"It's likely that we'll be experiencing more years like 2017 in the future," says Fire Ecologist Phil Higuera.

Higuera, from the University of Montana, was speaking at a forum called "How do we live with fire?" at the University Tuesday night. It was organized by a new online news source called Treesource, to try to get past superficial discussions of what Montana should learn from fire seasons like this one.

Here's moderator Frank Allen:

"How much of the landscape should we try to control, including fire, versus how much should we allow natural processes to continue?"

Fire ecologist Phil Higuera, who predicted more fire seasons like 2017 in the future due to climate change, answered that this way:

"One of the implications of climate change globally is that there are no places on the planet where humans have not had an impact. It makes it a little bit harder to think about this simple dichotomy between natural processes — what would be happening without humans — and otherwise."

Colin Hardy, manager of the Fire, Fuel and Smoke Science Program at the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula also suggested that people think carefully about what are now considered "natural processes," or "natural" forests when deciding what level of management is appropriate relative to fires.

"We have actively, deliberately made choices to exclude fire from landscapes every summer, every year for over 100 years. So if there is now pushback to actively do something to change that, lets not be in denial that we are trying to mitigate some of our deliberate choices from before," Hardy said.

None of the eight panelists who spoke last night advocated for a completely hands-off approach to forest management. Five of them worked for county, state or federal government agencies, two were academics and one worked in the insurance industry.

Greg Poncin, who was frequently in the news this summer as the incident commander for a time on both the Rice Ridge and Lolo Peak Fires, said he's concerned that the legacy of fires in Montana will be the effect they had on society, not their potential benefits to a landscape that evolved with fires in it since long before human times.

"We need to overcome either the distrust or the mis-perception, misunderstandings of what the agencies are trying to accomplish; or maybe not accomplishing, not doing. It's that stress, it's fear, frustration, anxiety that fuel the emotions of those impacted. It is really up to us to determine, or come to terms of how we're going to co-exist with it," Poncin said.

All of the panelists, to varying degrees, agreed that human intervention can significantly reduce the negative consequences wildfires can have on people during wildfire seasons. Everything from making individual homes and neighborhoods more wildfire resistant, to larger scale logging and controlled burning projects.

Sarah Coefield, the smoke specialist for the Missoula health department offered another type of adaptation – taking care of one's own indoor air quality:

"Should people get HEPA filters? Yes. Number 1: we live in a fire-adapted ecosystem, so smoke is going to be here. And, wildfire season is getting longer. We're going to see hotter summers and drier summers, and more wildfires and more smoke. And the goal of treating the forests is awesome, and we want to treat as much as we can to protect the homes, but there's a lot of wilderness out there that still is going to have a lot of fuel to burn. So, get a HEPA filter, create a clean space in your home."

The Treesource forum didn't offer any solutions to Montana's wildfire problem, nor did it even define wildfire itself as a problem. The goal seemed to be change attitudes toward accepting wildfires as a fact of life here, and stimulate dialog about what Montanans can and should do to adapt to that.

A video of the forum is available on the Treesource Facebook page.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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