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History of Western Fire Management Could Provide Model for Future

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Big Sky Connection


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Eric Tegethoff

MISSOULA, Mont. - Another intense fire season is expected and just around the corner in Montana. Could the solution to severe fire years in the future actually be putting more burns on the landscape? 

Mark Finney, a research forester at the U.S. Forest Service's Missoula Fire Sciences Lab, says fires have historically burned across Montana with less intensity. He notes the present strategy for dealing with fires is focused on suppression, and it's something firefighters in the West are good at. 

But the most intense infernos have escaped managers' control. Finney says big fires makeup about two percent of blazes but burn 90 percent of the total acreage.

"The only options we have are when to have and what kind to have," says Finney. "And if we insist on trying to remove all of the fire all the time we can, then the consequences of that choice are to have only the most extreme fires roaming the landscape."

Finney says removing small and moderate fires means biomass that would usually burn instead builds up and turns into fuel for massive fires every few years. About 1.4 million acres burned during Montana's 2017 fire season, the most in state history.

Finney says the history of management could be a guide to maintenance in the future. He notes that the benefits of fire are not as ingrained in western culture as they are in other parts of the country, such as the Southeast. However, knowledge of the need for fires is there. 

California timber companies in the late 1800s used prescribed burning to maintain their land. Then, Finney says, a devastating fire at the turn of the century changed the Forest Service's view of management.

"The 1910 fires, which were on the Idaho-Montana divide there, really, really catalyzed the notion that we were going to have to suppress fires and remove them from our forestlands to protect timber supplies, and that they were a threat to professional management," says Finney.

The Great Fire of 1910 in Montana, Idaho, and Washington is believed to be the largest single fire in U.S. history. It killed 87 people.

Finney says in fire-dependent ecosystems, there's no substitute for fires. He says it will require a culture change in the West to get used to this idea, but adds that it should be part of the region's management scheme.

"Find out how much and where we need to have fire and how often," says Finney. "And so fire has to be built into our land-management planning, our land-management activities, at a scale that is really unprecedented in the last century or so."

 


 


 

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