Monday, February 18, 2008

We must work together now to forge Montana's forest fire policy

An editorial in the Great Falls Tribune (Montana) by Dr. Thomas H. DeLuca, a senior forest ecologist for the Wilderness Society in Bozeman: It is winter, there's still snow on the ground and no smoke in the air, so now is probably the best time to have a rational discussion regarding wildfires. So it is good that the Montana State Legislature has established a special Fire Suppression Interim Committee to study these issues now.

All Montanans remember last summer's fire season when more than 740,000 acres burned and firefighting costs topped $100 million — with $42.7 million of that being paid by the state. That is an enormous expense to Montana and one that should make us stop and reflect how we might modify wildfire policies to emphasize public safety, reduce taxpayer costs, protect property, and enhance the long-term health of our forests.

Earlier this month I joined with two other local forest experts from the University of Montana and Montana State University to share some of our research and experience with the Fire Committee and to emphasize four points. In response to the increasing occurrence of fire and increasing firefighting costs, the state Legislature established a special Fire Suppression Interim Committee to review wildland fire policy.

First, expect more fires and more fires near communities. Wildland fire has always been a part of Montana's landscapes, and several factors have coalesced to create some of the most severe fire seasons in the state's recorded history. The occurrence of an extended drought, reduced snowpack, past timber management and fire suppression activities have acted as to increase forest fuel accumulation.

Fuel accumulation combined with the impacts of climate change, increasing length of fire season and higher summer temperatures, have resulted in a great potential for wildland fire. When you include the increasing numbers of people moving into the "wildland-urban interface," Montana's future almost certainly holds more fires near communities.

Second, protecting communities from fire must remain the top priority. … Significant research by the Forest Service and other scientists, much of it done here in Montana, shows that work right around homes does the most to protect structures, provides the biggest "bang for the taxpayer buck," and increases public and firefighter safety. Smart future planning and incentives to help communities Firewise homes and treat nearby lands must be encouraged.

….Finally, the U.S. Forest Service is being forced to focus on fire suppression and less on fire prevention and forest management. The Forest Service budget released recently proposes to spend nearly half the agency's funding on fire-related activities but cuts programs for fire pre-emptive projects like hazardous fuels reduction and fire preparedness. Focusing on just fire suppression during a time of increasing fire occurrence is not sustainable.

Near communities, fire suppression and fuel treatment efforts should be our focus. Homeowners must be empowered to protect themselves by encouraging them to make their communities Firesafe. Farther from communities, fire, both prescribed and wildland, must be used as a tool to restore forests and reduce future suppression costs. Together, Montanans can work toward creating fire-resistant communities in healthy, fire-resilient landscapes.

The Elk Bath picture was taken in Montana by John McColgan, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service, on August 6, 2000 on the East Fork of the Bitterroot River on the Sula Complex. The image is credited to the Alaskan Type I Incident Management Team

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