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The controversies that defined the 2017 fire season—and foreshadow the fires next time

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In the morning hours of Aug. 29, an ugly brown-orange haze settled over Missoula so thick it produced what Missoula City-County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield called “some next level dystopian lighting.” Conditions in town were deemed unhealthy enough to cause mild discomfort, but not as bad as the hazardous conditions people in Seeley Lake contended with. Days earlier, similar conditions had smudged the sky around a solar eclipse watched by thousands across western Montana. And for days afterward, Missoulians continued to live in the same eerie tableau.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And if our smoky air didn’t obscure our view of the blazes surrounding Missoula, it at least obscured our view of the scientific and emotional issues at play in the fire season of 2017, which put Montana to the test. Homes were lost, as were lives. Towns large and small coughed in unison through weeks of thick smoke, and no one yet is able to say what the long-term health impacts may be. Nobody wants to go through this again.

But we probably will. Which is why the taste of a fire season like this year’s—one of the worst in state history—lingers. Because where there’s fire, there’s frustration, controversy and fertile ground for the furthering of political agendas. Rhetoric, like smoke, tends to obscure plain truth. And with climatologists predicting ever-warmer fire-friendly temperatures in the future, it’s a safe bet that such obfuscation will settle over our valley again. So while the air is (relatively) clear, now is a good time to reflect on the facts and fantasies of the 2017 fire season, lest we find ourselves clouded by smoke in the years to come.


Was it really record-breaking?

Numerous headlines describe the 2017 season as “historic,” but just how historic it really was depends largely on whom you ask and on what metrics you use. In terms of acreage alone, 2017 holds the record for the past two decades at least. According to the latest data from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center (NRCC), Montana wildfires burned 1,252,467 acres in 2017, surpassing 2012, the next-biggest fire season of the past two decades, by roughly 32,000 acres. Yet the number of fires that account for that acreage was far from record-breaking: 1,935, compared to 2,809 distinct fires recorded in 1994, the leader.

“Generally speaking, the number of fires was average if not below,” says Greg Poncin, leader of the Type I Incident Command Team that ping-ponged between Montana’s major fires this summer. “So we had some really large fires that lasted a long time … When we got back from Arizona [in early July], we spent the rest of our summer essentially on the Lolo [National] Forest, between Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge.”

In terms of money, 2017 is shaping up to be the most expensive fire season in state history. Montana racked up a fire suppression tab of $74.2 million, as documented in a legislative report released in late October. The next biggest fire year in recent decades, 2012, cost the state just under $60 million. Combined with federal spending, the 2017 price tag climbs close to $400 million.

Andrew Larson, associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana, says 2017 was a big fire year, but “it wasn’t extreme.” Summer conditions were warmer and drier than average, he says, but even so, they were “well within the range of variability” for a northern Rockies fire season.

“This particular year doesn’t really raise any alarm bells for me, scientifically,” Larson says. “It’s not like we’re crossing a threshold or a tipping point or something. We’ve had bigger fire seasons than this in Montana.”

Phil Higuera, an associate professor who studies paleoecology and fire ecology at UM, hesitates to compare 2017 to an average fire season at all. Fire seasons are roughly analogous to floods, he says. Most years won’t see extensive flooding, but it happens occasionally.

Higuera also isn’t accustomed to narrowing his focus to single years. His research takes a broader approach, examining fire regimes over decades or even millennia based on lake sediment deposits, tree rings and observational records. With that 30,000-foot view, Higuera offers a more contextual take on how 2017 stacks up, and what made this season different.

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i45 cover

cover photo by Steve Rains USFS

“We know very clearly, from studies spanning the last 30 years to the last 100 years to the last 200 years to the last several thousand years, in all of those time scales, we see very strong links between climate and area burned,” Higuera says. “Over the last 30 years … we can explain the variability between years largely with just summer climate alone. Statistically … you can explain 80 percent or more of the variability between years just with summer precipitation and temperature.”

That point speaks to one aspect in which 2017 did surprise Higuera. Compared to other big fire years, he says, the spring preceding this summer’s burns was cooler and wetter. Neither he nor Larson would have guessed that the season would take such a dramatic turn for the worse. The NRCC maps the susceptibility of large fuels to fire based on moisture and with the exception of one short blip, the graph shows western Montana running well below average until late May. By early July, the graph was spiking even above 2012 levels. Peak susceptibility in August and September corresponded with large runs of the Lolo Peak fire and a doubling of the Rice Ridge fire. Higuera credits the increased susceptibility to what other fire officials have called “flash drought.”

“Given the spring, most people, myself included, wouldn’t have predicted a near record-setting fire season … because we expected precipitation to continue,” he says. “But it was shut off.”

So was 2017 a historic fire year? By some metrics, yes. From an ecological perspective, though, not especially. Whether similar seasons will strike with increased frequency in the years to come is another question entirely.


Climate change

In early September, the Atlantic joined a chorus of media outlets singing the song of wildfire as a harbinger and result of climate change in the West. The article compared the scope of the burns in Montana to the size of Rhode Island, and name-checked Missoula as breaking a 42-day record of days without measurable rain. The gist was that 2017 is an important year in understanding how human-caused climate change is affecting fire on the Western landscape.

That same month saw the release of Montana’s first climate assessment, compiled by five UM and Montana State University researchers. The assessment predicted that by the middle of the 21st century, temperatures in Montana could increase by 4.5 to 6 degrees. It also categorized the increased frequency and severity of wildfires as a major yet indirect effect of climate change on the state’s forests—an effect already in play in 2017.

“The direct effects of increasing temperature and precipitation may result in the expansion and/or contraction of certain forest types in certain regions of Montana,” the authors wrote. “However, the indirect effects of climate change on forests, such as changing wildfire and beetle outbreak severity, are already having a large impact on the health of Montana’s forests.”

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Rice Ridge Plane

Higuera draws the connection between big fire years and climate change more directly. We know seasons like 2017 are linked to drought, he says, and we know drought is linked to climate, i.e., summer temperature and precipitation. “We also know that with anthropogenic climate change over the last several decades, summer temperatures have gotten warmer, springs have gotten warmer, the fire season has increased in length. So there’s a strong statistical association between increased fire activity and increasing warmth in the summer.”

Was 2017 consistent with what we’d expect from the warmer temperatures associated with climate change? Yes, Higuera says. But he’s quick to caution against pinning this single fire season, or any other, directly on climate change. At least not until the science is focused narrowly enough to back such a claim.

“We would need to do the attribution study for this year to see how much of our drought and high temperatures was because of human-caused climate change versus natural variability,” he says. “That’s what we need to dissect before we could understand how much of the burning this summer was because of human-caused climate change.”


The reality of risk

On July 19, Hellgate High graduate Trenton Johnson was killed by a falling tree while battling the Florence fire near Seeley Lake, not far from where the Rice Ridge fire would be discovered the next day. Two weeks later, on the Lolo Peak fire, a snag struck and killed Brent Witham, a member of California’s Vista Grande Hotshots. The deaths came roughly a year after a similar incident in Nevada claimed the life of Lolo Hotshot Justin Beebe. It’s these deaths, more than anything else, that mark 2017 for Laura Ward.

“We mitigated all the risks to them, all the hazards, but we still end up with three fatalities in such a short amount of time,” says Ward, fire management officer for Lolo National Forest. “People go their whole careers without experiencing that.”

Wildfire fatalities are sadly nothing new in Montana. Acclaimed author Norman Maclean tackled the topic decades ago in his book Young Men and Fire, centered on the deaths of 13 firefighters in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire north of Helena. Nearly two dozen more firefighters have perished in wildfires throughout Montana in the 68 years since. Yet Ward thinks the fatalities of the past two seasons, and the issue of risk they underscore, are missing from the post-season conversation. She hears people talking about fire without once mentioning Johnson, Witham or Beebe. That bothers her.

“They aren’t talking about that part of it, and when you don’t talk about that part of it, you aren’t talking about the hazardous nature of the job,” she says.

Every decision at every level of wildland firefighting is made with risk management in mind, Ward explains. The agency is vigilant in finding ways to mitigate those risks. But the similarities among the three recent deaths suggest to her that the effort “hasn’t been framed correctly.” Even actions away from the fire line can wind up claiming a life, as in Witham’s case. The message Ward takes from 2017 is that there may not be a better way to mitigate risk to firefighters than what we’re doing now. If that’s the case, the future may demand some tough calls prioritizing safety over action.

“Sometimes we ask them to go into that hazardous environment knowing that the probability of success, of catching that fire or stopping it on that ridge, is low,” Ward says. “Should we really be doing that? And is our public ready to accept us not doing that?”


The Lolo Peak controversy

Throughout the night of Aug. 17, Dan and Michelle Schurg fought feverishly to protect their home in the Macintosh Manor subdivision near Florence. An evacuation order for their neighborhood had been issued the day before, in response to the approaching Lolo Peak fire, but the couple remained, moving woodpiles and training hoses on spot fires as the relief valves on their propane tanks hissed in the heat—a story shared in detail by the Missoulian and Montana Public Radio. Their efforts paid off. Though the forest around them was badly burned, their house was untouched.

Others weren’t so lucky. Two nearby homes were destroyed along with several outbuildings. At the time, Lolo Peak fire information officer Mike Cole attributed the damage not to the fire but to a back burn lit to combat it. Incident Commander Greg Poncin softened that claim a day later, saying that the Forest Service had launched a full investigation and adding that the back burn had been necessary to protect hundreds of other homes. The owner of one of the burned houses, Jackie Stermitz, told MTPR in September, “Someday I’ll understand this more, but I don’t know who to be pissed off at at the moment.”

No other structures were lost to the Lolo Peak fire, which burned 53,902 acres before the hot, dry weather relented. But the loss of those two homes, coupled with weeks of road closures, smoky conditions and widespread stress, made Lolo Peak arguably the most controversial fire of Montana’s 2017 season. Critics have assailed the Lolo National Forest for not extinguishing the blaze earlier, before wind-fueled runs were able to carry it out of the backcountry and into backyards. One letter to the editor this fall went so far as to suggest that the forest officials be fired and prosecuted, claiming that “what happened on this fire was indeed criminal.”

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Highway 200 Complex

It’s true that after lightning first ignited the Lolo Peak fire around 2:30 p.m. on July 15, the burn area encompassed only a few acres in the remote draws west of Lolo Peak. But as Missoula District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek explains, the portion of the forest under her charge had 11 active fires by mid-July, including one in Grant Creek, one in O’Brien Creek and as many as four on Blue Mountain. The district directed resources to a new start on Pattee Creek on July 16, and managed to keep it to just a couple of acres. These fires, she says, posed immediate and significant threats to residential neighborhoods.

“We were already managing fires in Rock Creek at that time that were threatening private lands and private structures,” Hensiek says. “When we evaluated Lolo Peak … it was a very remote situation, very remote fire, in steep terrain. It had no escape routes or safety zones,” to protect firefighters.

Hensiek assigned a helicopter to the Lolo Peak fire on July 17 for observation and a cycle of bucket drops. The pilot observed what firefighters call “rollout,” she says—fuels that roll out of the fire in steep country and create new starts. When the pilot informed her that they weren’t making progress in knocking down the fire, Hensiek adds, she made the call to back off.

Some critics have questioned why the Forest Service didn’t simply put the Lolo Peak fire out in its infancy using bucket drops or retardant. Drawing on his 37 years working wildfires, Poncin explains that’s a heavy ask. In fact, he says, “we don’t consider that ever successful without people there on the ground to back up what water and retardant can do on the fire.” You can stall it, he says, or knock it down, “but that’s about all.”

Poncin empathizes with those who lost homes, were evacuated or had to suffer through weeks of bad air. In the face of such fear and frustration, it’s tempting to accuse managers of not getting on top of a situation fast enough.

“I get it,” Poncin says. “I think everybody wishes we had or we could have. But the fact remains, it was what it was.”


Preparedness

The two homes lost to the Lolo Peak fire weren’t the only structures burned this summer. The Caribou fire overran 11 houses and nearly 30 outbuildings in an Amish community west of Eureka on Sept. 2, just days after the Sprague fire gutted Glacier National Park’s iconic Sperry Chalet. The destruction inevitably turns the post-season discussion toward defensible space.

Montanans have heard this refrain before. State and federal agencies, as well as organizations like the National Fire Protection Association, have been stressing for years the need for property owners in the wildland urban interface to clear trees and brush from around their homes. In 2016, the Roaring Lion fire in the Bitterroot claimed 14 homes in a single day. Homes that survived were propped up as shining examples of the effectiveness of preparing for fire before it arrives.

Hensiek expects that 2017 will be used to once again hammer the point, and she intends to do just that as Missoula County dives back into the process of revising its multi-agency Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Defensible space strategies may not guarantee that homes won’t be destroyed, but it’s nevertheless a critical aspect of the wildfire conversation.

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Lolo Peak fire southwest of Missoula

Twin plumes of smoke rise off the Lolo Peak fire southwest of Missoula, which started July 15 in steep, remote and heavily treed terrain. The fire wound up sparking one of the biggest controversies of the 2017 season.

“I don’t want to short some of the previous work that has been done here in this community, particularly since the fires of 2000,” Hensiek says. “But I think what we saw this past summer, we have an opportunity here to have those conversations again, because it’s so clear in everybody’s memory right now.”

For Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, the issue doesn’t stop there. He says the 2017 season underscored for him the need to cast a more critical eye on where we’re building. In September, with the Rice Ridge fire still burning near Seeley Lake, Strohmaier decided to visit to the site of a proposed subdivision the commission was slated to vote on.

“The irony did not escape me that as I was driving up to look at the proposed [Alpine Trails] subdivision, there were these two massive columns of smoke in the background,” Strohmaier says. “Some of the access roads were blocked by National Guardsmen because the entire area was under an evacuation order.”

Strohmaier was the lone “no” vote on the subdivision Sept. 14.

It’s a topic Strohmaier plans to explore further in the county’s deliberations over its wildfire protection plan. He’s cognizant of the potential for government interference in such projects to trigger litigation. However, he’s wary of encouraging or approving residential development in areas too remote or restrictive to protect from fire, and predicts that, in some cases, no amount of mitigation will be effective.

“Fundamentally, we’re getting to the point, from a policy perspective … that there are cases where we’ve got to be willing to say no,” he says. “That would be a sea-change in how we live with fire.”

Emily Rindal recognizes the financial challenges that wildfire can pose for existing and future residential spaces. As an agent with Farmers Insurance in Seeley Lake, she watched as other insurance companies canceled homeowners’ policies in the midst of the Rice Ridge fire. After this season, she adds, it’s possible that some companies will increase their underwriting restrictions for fire-prone areas.

“A lot of these companies are not wanting to insure the protection class 10s [homes farthest from fire departments and water supplies] anymore, because it takes a long time to get there and it’s just too risky with all the fires around.”


The lake is closed

On Aug. 1, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced the temporary closure of Seeley Lake’s waters to all recreation. Scooper planes deployed by the Forest Service were regularly skimming the lake’s surface, collecting water in the hopes of beating back the rapidly growing Rice Ridge fire. Headlines and social media posts statewide carried the news that Seeley Lake was closed, often in a manner that some residents felt was ambiguous. As Cheryl Thompson of the Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce told KPAX in September, “People thought the whole town was closed.”

Other fire-related developments certainly didn’t help the tourism-centric town. Missoula County health officials warned residents to leave on Aug. 9 due to the worst smoke conditions the county had ever recorded, according to air quality specialist Coefield. By the end of August, more than 1,000 people were under evacuation orders. The lake itself reopened on Aug. 18, but closed again Sept. 11.

“There were some businesses that had a hard time staying open because they didn’t have employees here,” Rindal says. “Either they evacuated or they didn’t want to leave their homes.”

It wasn’t just tourism-based business that ground to halt as Rice Ridge raged. Contractors couldn’t work. Homes weren’t selling, and by extension neither was insurance. Bars, restaurants, hotels—the whole town was at a standstill. “I think everyone was affected,” Rindal says.

“Most of these businesses are not at risk of going out of business right now,” she says. “But come winter, come January, February, they might be, because they didn’t make the income they would have during the summer.”

To that end, Seeley Lake applied for and recently received one of the new state recovery grants established by the Department of Tourism and Business Development. Rindal hopes that funding will help Seeley bounce back, getting the town through to next summer and the promise of big events like July’s Bob Marshall Music Festival. Hopefully by then, she says, would-be visitors will have gotten the message that Seeley Lake isn’t closed, and that it wasn’t left in cinders.

“I think a lot of people might be under the impression that Seeley Lake burned down, that you’re going to be looking at black mountains, and that’s not the case. It’s still really pretty.”


The agendas

The day before Halloween, Congressman Greg Gianforte visited the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest with Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas. The two were on a junket for Westerman’s Resilient Federal Forests Act, which Gianforte had recently plugged during a similar visit to Columbia Falls. Gianforte’s pitch amounted to this, as paraphrased from his quote in the Flathead Beacon: We can’t control the weather, but we can control forest management. He also took the opportunity to swipe at a familiar target of Montana Republicans: environmentalists.

“We have a litigation problem,” Gianforte told the Beacon, “because our current laws empower environmental extremists to file lawsuits and slow down responsible timber projects.”

Sen. Steve Daines has leveled similar criticisms at what he calls “radical environmentalists.” Even Sen. Jon Tester has taken aim in the past at the perceived frequency of litigation over timber projects in the Western United States, claiming in a 2015 interview with MTPR that “every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation. Every one of them.” The statement was so blatantly untrue that the Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave it a ranking of “four Pinocchios.” Still, the talking point continues, fueling not only Gianforte’s support of the Resilient Federal Forests Act—an effort, passed by the U.S. House last week, to reform forest management and expedite NEPA reviews—but also Daines’ introduction of the Litigation Relief for Forest Management Projects Act. Daines also joined several other Republican senators late last month in releasing the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act, which would streamline environmental review processes and statutorily overturn a landmark 9th Circuit decision requiring consultation between federal agencies on critical habitat for endangered species.

These policy debates, however troubling, have largely played as background noise during local conversations about how to move forward from 2017. The subject is the same: forest management. But the approaches couldn’t be more different.

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Brent Witham, Trenton Johnson and Justin Beebe.

Laura Ward, fire management officer for the Lolo National Forest, says the deaths of three firefighters associated with her forest in the last two years highlighted for her the importance of talking about risk. Those firefighters, from left to right, were Brent Witham, Trenton Johnson and Justin Beebe. 

During a late-October panel on living with fire hosted by the new nonprofit news outlet Treesource, ecologists and land managers talked at length about the need to thin Montana’s low-elevation forests and better apply prescribed fire. Nearly every panelist, Rindal and Higuera included, acknowledged that forests require fire to remain healthy. But a century of wildfire suppression has thrown that regime out of whack. If we don’t want fire to burn uncontrolled, the panelists agreed, we’d better burn it in a way we can control.

“Fire has always been here,” Helena National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said during the Oct. 24 event. “We are the ones who have come. We need to do what is required to fix things.”

One of the most frequent misconceptions that UM’s Andrew Larson encounters when talking to people about forest health is the idea that thinning treatments and active forest management will prevent wildfires. “That’s not true,” he says. However, he insists that statement be paired with its follow-up, and says that it too often isn’t.

“Thinning and other forest management activities can strongly influence how a fire burns and how severe it is, and because of that they’re very, very important management tools,” he says. “But the purpose of a fuel treatment, for example, is not to prevent a fire from burning. Instead, we’re expecting this site to burn, and we’ve managed the fuels to modify and moderate the behavior and severity of that fire.”

To drive home the point, Larson explains how lower-elevation forests have become fire-adapted. Prior to human suppression, he says, these tracts burned naturally every five to 20 years in low-severity fires—fires that fed off the flammable forest floor and perhaps scorched the thick bark of ponderosas, but otherwise moved quickly and didn’t become the giant conflagrations we see today. If we want to live with fire, he says, returning to this historic fire regime will keep the forests healthy and save us the frustration, the loss and the negative health effects associated with major fires.

“I think there is some real value in being reflective and asking ourselves, given that we live in a flammable landscape, how can we better coexist with fire?” Larson says. “Especially after a year like this, when we think about the future, we shouldn’t be surprised when we have another big fire season.”

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