Continental Divides

Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke

Three times as many houses and other structures burned in western wildfires from 2010 to 2020 compared to the previous decade

By John McCaslin

Smoke poured early into the Flathead this spring, well before late summer and autumn, when, alas, we’ve grown accustomed to daily air quality alerts and the outdoor restrictions they bring.

Raging wildfires, burning near and afar, and resulting toxic smoke are increasingly impacting this valley’s residents and tourists alike. And science tells us the number and duration of the fires will only grow worse as the planet continues to heat up.

Even the lethal flames and fumes from western Montana’s “Great Fire of 1910” — ranked as one of the largest and most intense forest fires in American history if not “anywhere in the world,” claiming 89 lives and three million timbered acres in two days’ time — didn’t persist for weeks on end like today’s wildfires.

It’s reached the point where wildfires are now the greatest source of air pollution in the United States.

So what’s a basecamp community like ours to do?

Donald Trump’s proposed remedy — “you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests” — garnered plenty of chuckles, but the former president wasn’t barking up the wrong tree.

President Joe Biden, in fact, took Trump’s hint last year —and expanded it in recent weeks — earmarking $1.8 billion to clean up 21 at-risk pockets of the West, including in our neck of the woods.

The administration labels them “hazardous fuels reduction projects,” combining federal, state and local resources to conduct prescribed burning, thinning, planting, you name it — cleaning the forests — including around the “particularly high-risk” communities of Stryker, Trego, Fortine, Eureka, Libby and Troy.

You can thank Montana’s legislature, in part, for holding Uncle Sam’s feet to the fire.

Annotated in 2021, Montana code dictates that catastrophic wildfires “resulting from inadequate federal land management activities to reduce fire risk has the potential to jeopardize Montanans’ inalienable right to a clean and healthful environment.”

The same law, I should point out, stipulates that every Montana property owner has a responsibility to mitigate fire hazards on his or her land. All of which won’t rid us of the acrid smoke sent this way from as far away as California and Canada, but it’s a good start.

Already in 2023, “apocalyptic” wildfires have blown up from British Columbia and Alberta (what we were inhaling a few weeks ago) to Nova Scotia, right on the heels of the Canadian government releasing its “Canada Wildfire Strategic Plan 2022-2027.”

Canada’s goals, which are similar to this country’s, are to better understand the science of wildfires — fire behavior, fire ecology, fire risks — in hopes of developing more effective forest management policies to reduce “fuel loading.”

The resulting policies will rely on a wide assortment of stakeholders: federal, state and local government agencies and indigenous communities, to our first responders and academic institutions.

In recent weeks, for example, a years-long wildfire study issued by the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation found that the West’s rapidly growing populations — not Mother Nature — are causing the most destructive wildfires.

“Humans are driving the negative impacts from wildfire,” explained the study’s lead author and UM fire ecologist Philip Higuera, whose team examined 15,001 western wildfires between 1999 and 2020.

“Human fingerprints are all over this,” he said. “We influence the when, the where and the why.”

Like continuing to build homes and commercial buildings in flammable ecosystems like ours. The study found three times as many houses and other structures burned in western wildfires from 2010 to 2020 compared to the previous decade.

“We have levers,” Higuera said. “As climate change makes vegetation more flammable, we advise carefully considering if and how we build in flammable vegetation.”

The Flathead Valley obviously experiences less structure loss than higher density areas. Still, during the past two summers along the east and west shores of Flathead Lake, the Elmo Fire (22,000-plus acres) and Boulder 2700 Fire (3,000 acres surrounding Finley Point) destroyed numerous homes, outbuildings and other structures.

(Lightning sparked the Elmo fire, whereas a 36-year-old Lake County man, Craig McCrea, was charged with three felony counts of arson after allegedly lighting the Boulder blaze with a torch).

Montana, like much of the West, is also experiencing longer fire seasons, often beginning in the spring and lasting well into the fall, given sparser autumn snowfall. Which presents a long list of health and safety challenges, especially for infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly, people working outdoors, and last but not least the firefighters manning the erratic and noxious front lines.

Much of the discussion I had recently with Montana Sen. Jon Tester, chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, surrounded securing pay hikes last year for federal wildland firefighters and smokejumpers. In addition, he helped enforce the presumption that certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases are related to battling wildfires.

Another bill of Tester’s that passed the U.S. Senate this year will boost firefighting capacity throughout Montana, including making federal funding available for additional crews, better equipment, and more firehouses.

“Montana’s firefighters are often the first line of defense when disaster strikes,” the senator observed when his legislation passed. “Firefighters have dangerous jobs, and it’s critical they have the equipment and personnel needed to safely handle emergencies.”

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that aforementioned federal and local firefighting inroads and partnerships, coupled with above-average precipitation that’s fallen over much of the West this year, will help keep the inevitable wildfires — and smoke — at bay for the remainder of 2023.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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