Turning a Corner, For Now

We’ll never log our way out of fire when it doesn’t rain all summer

By Rob Breeding

Just as I worried fire season might never end, it ended.

Rain came to Montana last week, with snow up in the mountains. While the fire season is effectively over with the advent of fall-like weather, fire-debating season is a year-round sport, and right now it’s crunch time for this competition.

That means we’re hearing from some that if we just went to work logging, our problems would be solved. Such claims are as foolhardy as when the Montana Legislature noted snow on the ground in February and then gambled that this would be the year they could slash state funding for firefighting.

To be clear, sound forest management includes logging. There are places where it makes sense to cut, and thinning activities that clean up excess fuels are necessary, especially in the wildland-urban interface. I suspect if all the money now funneled toward fighting fire (more than 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget these days, a percentage metastasizing like cancer) were suddenly shifted to forest-thinning projects, and the old boogieman of enviro-backed lawsuits were waved away by judicial fiat, it would still do little to stop a fire season like the one that just slammed Montana.

All the logging and fuel-treatment projects in the world won’t stop fire when it doesn’t rain for more than two months and high temperatures are in the 90s for most of that time. The average high in Kalispell for July was 90 degrees, and barely a trace of rain fell during that tinderbox month. August wasn’t quite as bad, but nearly every day the high temperature exceeded the long-term average.

Ninety degrees is my Montana benchmark for, “Man, it’s hot!” It fits that bill here the same way 110 does in Arizona.

Unfortunately we’re experiencing more 90-degree days in Montana, and for longer periods. Coupled with less summer rain, that means more fires: longer, bigger, hotter fires that are too dangerous to effectively fight. All we can do is try to nudge these hot fires away from places of value such as homes and structures. But even that wasn’t possible in Glacier this summer as the Sperry Chalet burned and there were concerns Lake McDonald Lodge might go as well.

In this season of fire debate, there are arguments I find compelling, and some that fall flat. I hear people talk about fire being a natural part of the wild landscape of Montana, that we’ll never eliminate it but if we learn from the lessons of the past — complete suppression is unnatural and impossible — and if we manage fuels effectively, we can reduce risk. Reduce, not eliminate, mind you. This argument is usually followed by the caveat that forest fuel management is an expensive proposition that will require a commitment from taxpayers.

But when folks suggest our forests are burning because we’re simply not cutting enough, and that if the enviros just got out of the way, logging would solve the problem of summer fires, I’m not buying it. Making money off logging means cutting the big stuff, and cutting all those “big pickles”  — that’s the phrase I remember a forester using years ago to describe old-growth ponderosa pine — isn’t going to help with our fire woes. It’s the unprofitable dog hair thickets of Douglas fir that thrived in the conditions left by clear cutting and fire suppression that are the problem.

There isn’t enough cut left to get out when conditions are as bad as they were in 2017. We’ll never log our way out of fire when it doesn’t rain all summer.

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