Avoiding the Next 1910

By Beacon Staff

Like many folks, I was hoping Montana had dodged the big bullet the past few days of this fire season. Now I’m not so hopeful.

This fire season might still blow up into an unmitigated disaster on a 1910 scale. The Skyland fire boiled at 420 acres for a week only to finally jump off the charts. Only the little cool spot the past few days has allowed containment lines to be established after enormous runs, and any hold on these fires is tenuous.

For example, the Skyland report on Inciweb for Sunday night noted a 72-hour outlook for “very dry fuels; anticipate 20-year record energy release component.” And the Jocko fire, combined with red-flag winds, has forced a second evacuation of the outskirts of Seeley Lake as crews try to hold the east lines. Further, there’s a fire just west of Kalispell in the grass as I write this and…I just got a call from a friend who has been running some equipment on the Brush Creek fire: Word is the fire has escaped containment on the north side toward Good Creek.

Charming, huh?

Some still insist these conditions are “natural,” nature righting human interference. Well, that’s hooey. The history and reality of landscape fire, as PhD anthropologist Bob Zybach of Corvallis, Ore., explains, is that “aboriginals found throughout the world […] over great lengths of time, had found ways to manage vegetation to benefit their existence. The burns were to provide safety from animals and people, to keep wildfire from killing them, to provide vigor and health in plants that gave them food or fiber.”

Face it, folks … the landscape we live in, even the wildernesses we have set aside, are a social construct, a social artifact stemming from human decisions to act, or not act.
It is time to act.

We are experiencing earlier starts, longer durations, and higher intensities, to the point where we, despite throwing billions of dollars away, are helpless – not before “Nature’s wrath” – but as a consequence of our own foolishness.

The only way from here on out to fight fire, and the loss of good habitat, clean air, clean water, fine wood, all sorts of forest “benefits” to our “existence,” is to act preemptively year round, using prescribed fires in combination with, you betcha, logging.
Yes, I can hear the howls of protest from the usual suspects already … but the fact remains that it is brutally unfair for American citizens to fork over billions to “fight” fires that could be mitigated through smart, aggressive, cost-effective management free from irrational, anti-social litigation.

Part of that smart management, of course, involves “firewise” treatments of forest homesites. But islands of green surrounded by seas of black, grey and red are a result only a few ideologues desire.

I would suggest several things:

First, that the U.S. Forest Service plan in the short run to salvage as much commercial wood as it possibly can from the black, while leaving enough down nutrients for the next forest – a planted forest if need be, paid for with salvage proceeds, not supplemental taxpayer dollars.

Second, in forests that are still green, the Forest Service needs to implement a program where fire and mechanical harvest are integrated.

Third, and most important, our elected officials, specifically Governor Schweitzer, Senators Baucus and Tester, and Congressman Rehberg, need to get serious about a comprehensive reform of federal public lands laws that makes the first two action items possible.

Fourth, if our leaders don’t get serious, then voters need to get serious about electing someone who will.

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