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

Megafire Trends

This week, the Montana Wood Products Association holds its annual convention marking 42 years as a trade association dedicated to preserving and promoting Montana’s wood products industry. 

One of the highlights of this year’s event is the keynote address by Mr. John Norman Maclean.  Mr. Maclean – an internationally renowned author – has written about wildland fire for two decades.  His address is entitled, “Fires and forests, from Storm King to Yarnell Hill”.  The keynote is a reflection on the 20th anniversary of the Storm King fire in Colorado and the first anniversary of the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona.

His subject matter is very timely, not only because of the recent tragic events at Yarnell Hill in Arizona last year, but with increasing wildfire occurrence and severity across the West, federal resource managers are reviewing how and when wildfires are fought.  With homes being built in the Wildland Urban Interface at an increasing pace; the encroachment of homes into wooded areas shifts woodland firefighting into concerns over human safety and structure protection.  Here lies the dilemma. 

Over the past decade, a new era of megafires have emerged.  People who study forest fires report that the past 10 years have brought increasingly frequent fires that burn 500,000 acres or more – 10 times the size of wildfires 20 years ago.

Several factors contribute to this rising trend.  At a time when many western states witnessed the systematic closure of mill after mill and the subsequent loss of the critical workforce to harvest trees: a small, but significant increase in average yearly temperature across the West meant that fire season became almost a year-round concern.  As the forest products industry evaporated, so did the moisture.

In 2012, Colorado’s Waldo Canyon fire alone burned more than 340 homes and displaced 32,000 residents.  It broke a state record for the most homes burned – the record had just been set days earlier when the High Park fire destroyed more than 250 homes.  Then in 2013, the Black Forest fire broke another record with 486 homes destroyed.

National trends tell the same sad story.  During the entire decade of the 60’s, only 100 homes were lost to wildfire.  However, from the 1990’s to 2000, the statistics took a quantum leap.  In the 1990’s, roughly 900 homes burned in wildfires, leading the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) to release a detailed study to congress in 1995, that very clearly reported on the severity of the problem.  True to the GAO prediction, over 2,500 homes were burned from 2000 to 2010, and from 2010 through 2013, (just 3 short years) 3,600 homes and 23 million acres burned.  Staggering figures.

The 1995 GAO report suggested that the underlying factors increasing the numbers of huge megafires was four-fold.  A rapid reduction in the forest products infrastructure and timber harvest across the West lead to the increase in forest fuels. Drought conditions and an expanding Wildland Urban Interface also factor in to the likelihood of a megafire situation.

This year, Montana’s fire season as been manageable, with the aid of heavy snow pack in the mountains and a wet spring.  However, other areas across the West have not been so lucky.  As of August 20, more than 2.6 million acres have burned in wildland fires – which is down from the epic years of 2011 and 2012, when more than 6.5 million acres were consumed – but still 2014, has not been a “mild” fire year.

Is Montana the next ground zero for a Storm King or Yarnell Hill tragedy?  We certainly hope not!  With the recent identification and approval of 4.9 million acres as priority landscapes suffering from poor forest health, or what is commonly known in forestry circles as in Condition Class 2 and 3 and Fire Regimes 1, 2 and 3, we certainly have work to do.  We cannot solely burn nor can we solely harvest our way out of this mess.  It is going to take both tools working in concert, and new firefighting tactics to avert a tragedy closer to home.

America’s elite and invisible firefighters fall from the sky, or at ground level, dig fire line at the first puff of smoke.  With all eyes on a thunder cell as possible lightening bursts, when it comes, they go.  We all have a responsibility to make sure they come back safely.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus, thanks for listening.

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