MISSOULA — In the mountains of western Montana, amid heavy breaths, radio chatter, banter and clanging gear, firefighters with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes climbed to a crest to light a fire. Their yellow-and-green uniforms, initially camouflaged by dried grass and trees, contrasted with the trench they dug into the dark dirt to contain the prescribed burn.
“This is the easy part,” one of the firefighters said, explaining that setting controlled burns is easier than controlling wildfires.
Wildfires burned more than a million acres in Montana this summer, the third-highest toll in state history, reigniting a longstanding debate about how to manage public lands. But there is widespread agreement — from loggers to conservationists — that controlled burns could help prevent more of the state from going up in flames.
“If you burn more often, you don’t have as much fuel,” said Jim Riddering, a former hotshot firefighter and research associate professor at the University of Montana. “That’s an easy way to think about it. If you suppress fire, like we have, fuel is going to build up. Once it does burn — it’s inevitable that it’s going to burn — it’s going to burn more intensely and pose control problems.”
But using fire to fight fire hasn’t always been an accepted practice. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mainstream belief was that quelling wildfires promoted ecological stability — and protected human lives and livelihoods. Wildfire suppression became standard practice, including the U.S. Forest Service’s “10 a.m.” policy, introduced in 1935, that required all fires be extinguished or contained by 10 a.m. the day following their discovery.
“These forests are supposed to burn, and they’ve been doing it for a very long time,” Riddering said. “We’ve been very successful at fire suppression. We’ve got 100 to 110 years of being really good at suppressing fire, and it turns out that’s kind of problematic.”
Disrupting the frequency of low-intensity fires in the fire-dependent ecosystems of western Montana and the northern Rocky Mountains means that flammable vegetation that would have burned away is instead stockpiled to fuel larger and fiercer blazes.
Policies started to change in the 1960s, but Native American tribes in western Montana have long understood the value of naturally occurring fires — and intentionally setting fires.
“This is a fire-shaped landscape, and fire exclusion produces ever-increasing fuel loads that move our forests further and further from their historic condition and more out of balance,” said Germaine White, information and education specialist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “It’s a stunningly beautiful landscape out of balance. When you look at then-and-now photographs, you see that the Mission Mountains have natural fire mosaics, and those are absent now. It’s a landscape that’s ready to go up in flames.”
The U.S. National Park Service website describes how settlers failed to grasp what Native Americans understood.
“Europeans held a view of fire, its effects and consequences that was very different from the Native American view of the natural phenomena,” the report reads. “At the close of the 19th century, settlers concentrated on permanent husbandry of the forests to protect watersheds and forest products. Crops also were of concern when wildfire control was discussed. As fences began to create a patchwork across the once open expanses of prairie and forest, fire became an enemy capable of destroying all that had been achieved.”
For the people of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, fire was integral to achievement.
“Historically, fire was at the very heart of our traditional life,” White said. “Fire was used for cooking, it was used in ceremony, it was used to maintain trails, it was used to maintain plant and animal communities, and fire was used in spiritual practice. Fire was primary and fundamental.”
Today, firefighters again use fire to reduce fuels and restore habitats for wildlife, including elk and bison. The fires also restore the plants that produce the region’s beloved huckleberries and the camas bulbs that were once a staple food item to Native Americans and early settlers, according to data from the Forest Service.
But a host of obstacles still limits the size and number of prescribed burns . This year’s uncharacteristic blazes were compounded by built-up fuel and sudden drought conditions.
One of those obstacles is the people living in close proximity to forests. Since 1990, 60 percent of new homes in the U.S. were built in areas that are considered “wildland-urban interface” — meaning next to wildlands at risk of fire, according to a fire report from the Government Accountability Office. Beyond posing greater risks to lives and structures, these communities also hinder the reduction of fuels through controlled burns.
“Some residents resist fuel reduction treatments because they perceive the treatments as damaging the environment or because they want the privacy provided by the vegetation near their homes,” the report said. “The public’s tolerance of smoke from prescribed burns can be limited, which results in fewer prescribed fire treatments.”
Smoke levels are not measured solely by public opinion, but also by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act. Depending on air quality, land managers may not receive burn permits from state officials.
“There might be days that we really want to burn, and we have the weather,” said Darrell Clairmont, fire division fuels specialist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, “but we don’t have the wind to disperse the smoke. So, then, we don’t burn.”
He added that it’s challenging to work around inhabited areas of forest.
“It’d be easier for us to take a big area and burn it, rather than knocking it into little chunks,” Clairmont said. “There’s less open land now, because there’s more of us.”
Trees like the ponderosa pine and the Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine thrive in frequent low-intensity fires. Without those fires, however, more-combustible tree species have encroached in these ecosystems. When they burn, they burn hotter and taller, as flames engulf the crowns of the encroaching trees.
“There wasn’t a lot of brush in the mountains — it was more of an open landscape,” said Bob McCrea, wildlands operations specialist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and a former smokejumper, who has fought fires since 1966. “It isn’t that way anymore.”
A federally protected bald eagle’s nest can also throw a wrench in plans for a prescribed burn.
“The eagle nest was something that threw us out in the spring,” Clairmont said of a prescribed fire intended to restore elk habitat. “We’re trying to make up for it this fall by doing it by hand and taking care it’s not on the nest.”
Instead of igniting the fire via helicopter, the firefighters in his division dug the containment line in the mountain, heeding a half-mile-long buffer they agreed to leave for the nest.
An unexpected limitation to the burns by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has been the tribe’s elders.
“This is a cultural aspect,” Clairmont said. “In the springs, our elders will go out and collect different plants from different areas. So, we have to figure out where they’re going, because we’ve run into issues. Sometimes, where they go to collect plants, we’ve wanted to burn. So, timing is an issue as well.”
Of all the hurdles to prescribed burns, though, Clairmont said funding is the biggest. The money to fight fires is there, but that’s not always the case for forest maintenance and risk-reducing measures like controlled burns.
“The funding that I see fluctuates quite a bit,” Clairmont said. “I would think that the next couple of years my funding might be pretty good because of the fire season we had this year. But, then, that’s going to go out of people’s minds. They’re not going to be concerned about it, and then it’ll be another big fire season.”
Editor’s note: This story is part of Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from WGBH and The GroundTruth Project.