It’s going to take fire — and a lot of it — to fight wildfire in the Missoula Valley, where it is and always has been part of the landscape. Experts say it’s also going to take more prescribed burning, new levels of government agency coordination and new layers of government regulation to make a difference.
U.S. Forest Service Fire Scientist Mark Finney says Western Montana has only two options when it comes to wildfire.
“The first one is how much fire do we want on the landscape? The second one is, what kind of fire do we want? Zero is not an option because we’ve tried that, and you can see the consequences of it.”
Meaning decades of aggressive fire suppression has led to an unprecedented buildup of forest fuels, leading to less frequent but more aggressive and destructive wildfire.
A lunchtime lecture hosted Monday by City Club Missoula Finney told Finney described a 40-year-old study of ponderosa stands on Lolo Peak. “The fire frequency was somewhere between two and 20 years with an average of six years in between fires at the low elevation. At the upper elevation, it was an average of about 44 years, so a lot more fire than we’re seeing now.”
Finney says those low-intensity burns removed fine forest fuels and typically produced little smoke. Had those trends continued today, researchers estimate about 36,000 acres would burn annually around the greater Missoula area. But that’s not what happened.
Thanks to aggressive fire suppression, Finney says only about 8,500 acres burned annually over the past 18 years.
“So that’s about four times less, roughly speaking, than what would have been burning had fire regimes continued prior to settlement. 97 percent of ignitions are now suppressed before they get to about 300 acres, primarily under mild and moderate conditions. The ones that are escaping are those that are burning under extreme conditions, when suppression inevitably fails.”
One recent example: the lightning-caused Lolo Peak Fire of 2017 that burned about 54,000 acres, led to one fatality and cost almost $35 million to battle.
Finney says timber harvests are a necessary component of forest management, but are not sufficient if the goal is to reduce hazardous fuels. For that, he says, “We need prescribed burning. There isn’t an alternative to it.”
Jennifer Hensiek agrees.
Hensiek, the Missoula District Ranger of the Lolo National Forest, is stepping up fuels reduction projects in area forests and identifying some of Missoula’s highest fire risk areas.
“Right now, what we’re talking about is the areas on the west side of Missoula because, like I mentioned, the westerly winds, is what brought that area to the forefront. But there are other areas that are at risk, and we’re evaluating those as well.”
Those include Pattee Canyon, Grant Creek and Upper Miller Creek — all areas in the so-called wildland urban interface, residential areas abutting forested areas.
Prescribed burning degrades air quality and raises both legitimate health concerns as well as general grumbling by everyone who has to breathe smoky air in the off season.
Hensiek wants Missoula to have a meaningful conversation about what’s at stake.
“Because if we’re not willing to do some of that thinning and remove some of that material or have a little smoke in the air in the spring, or do some of that prescribed burning, what are those risks we’re willing to accept as a community? If we’re not willing to engage and do some of that mitigation work up front, then we are going to have more disastrous situations likely."
The Lolo National Forest, and state and local partners are developing a fuels reduction project called “Wildfire-Adapted Missoula,” which is analyzing the Missoula Valley’s wildfire threats. Earlier this spring, city and county officials approved a joint proclamation supporting the project.
County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier suggested Monday that local regulatory changes are not out of the question.
“We are looking at what changes to our subdivision regulations may need to occur to mitigate for wildfire risk. We’re looking at the possibility of adopting a wild land urban interface code — a WUI code — which would help determine the building materials and how new structures, new development would occur in the wild land urban interface.”
Strohmaier says the risk of building in floodplains is now a well known and accepted practice. He wonders if the same concept should now be applied in a way local officials have not yet formally considered, such as toward high fire risk areas, if there are places where development should no longer be allowed.