Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Andi Bourne

How Do We Live With Fire?


November 2, 2017

Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

The Rice Ridge Fire burning in the mountains above Seeley Lake Sept. 2.

by Andi Bourne


MISSOULA - A panel of eight experts discussed the challenges and lessons of the 2017 fire season to help address the question How Do We Live with Fire? The forum, moderated by former environmental editor of the Wall Street Journal Frank Allen, was presented at the University of Montana Tuesday, Oct. 17.

Farmers Insurance Agent Emily Rindal spoke on the effects of the 160,000-acre Rice Ridge Fire and 29,000-acre Liberty Fire. She highlighted the stress and fear felt by residents and the economic loss the smoke and lake closures had on the community businesses.

Air Quality Specialists with Missoula City-County Health Department Sarah Coefield said this was the worst air quality that Missoula County has seen since they have been recording data. The smoke in Seeley Lake was the worst because of its thickness and duration.

Phil Higuera, Fire Ecologist at the UM College of Forestry and Conservation, said many species have evolved in the presence of fire and have developed adaptations to be resilient to the effects of fire.

“Fire does not destroy ecosystems. In many ways, fire plays very important roles in nutrient cycling and creating habitat for particular species,” said Higuera.

Higuera said reconciling the natural role fire plays with the disaster it creates when it interacts with humans and the things human’s value is the biggest challenge in living with wildfire. He said there is strong evidence that fuel treatments modify the way fire behaves giving firefighters a safety margin to protect valued resources.

Colin Hardy, manager of fire, fuel and smoke program at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, shared the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy authored by the Wildland Fire Leadership Council. The vision is to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed, use fire where allowable, manage natural resources and as a nation live with wildland fire. He said at least 48 percent of federally managed lands are at a high risk of losing key components.

“We need to learn how to co-manage fire, how to co-own the risk and work with one another,” said Hardy.

Matt Arno, forestry consultant with the Montana Department of Natural Resources, provided three examples of fuels reduction that included removing small, less vigorous trees and saw logs that paid for the rest of the thinning.

“From what I’ve seen, these projects are all good examples of fuels reduction completed before a wildfire. It leads to much less tree mortality and it makes it significantly easier and safer for firefighters to do their work,” said Arno.

While not all logging includes a fuels reduction component and it does not mean a forest won’t burn, fuels reduction treatments do drop fire to the ground and reduce the intensity. They also reduce the number of air-born embers that start spot fires and are the most common cause of home ignition.

“If we did [fuels mitigation treatments and made homes safe], we could get to a point where fires were less expensive and not such a big impact to communities,” said Arno. “It would also provide jobs, sustainable wood products and revenue. We are not treating nearly enough acres to significantly reduce our fire risk. I propose we need to be doing a lot more thinning and logging with a fuels reduction objective.”

Bob Yokelson, research chemist at the UM Chemistry Department, said wildfires typically consume about five times more fuel than prescribed fire per acre and wildfires produce almost four times more smoke particles per ton of fuel burned. The benefits of prescribed fire are they produce about 17 times less particulate matter pollution per acre burned than wildfire, can be burned when smoke impacts and structure risks are minimized and they reduce hazardous fuels.

Greg Poncin, Type I Incident Commander, discussed the evolving strategy of firefighting after 37 years as a firefighter. IMT focus on specific values at risk, now called highly valued resources and assets. He said the number of firefighting resources has greatly declined in recent years.

“It is imperative that we are much more focused and take a sophisticated approach about employing the right kind of resources in the right place to accomplish what those important objectives are,” said Poncin.

Poncin shared the example from the Rice Ridge Fire of the 7,000 acre unburned area north of the Cottonwood Lakes Road from Little Shanley Creek east to Dunham Creek. The Operations team calculated it would take 10 crews around 10 days to use direct attack if it could be done safely. By using aerial ignition lighting the ridgetops and allowing fire to back down the slope, they secured the area with “a large amount of the forest canopy remaining intact.” It only required three crews to complete the operation in two and half days.

Poncin feels fire is a social problem with issues including: choking on smoke, views obscured, recreation opportunities limited, economic loss of real or perceived commercial timber lands, changed viewsheds, disruption of commerce and services, monetary costs to the state and federal government estimated at $400 million for Montana and around $2 billion for the nation, burned homes and property and injury and death to firefighters and the public.

Poncin feels the core of the social issue is a monumental trust exercise.

“We need to overcome either the distrust or misperception of what the agencies are trying to accomplish or maybe not accomplishing or not doing. It’s the stress, fear, frustration and anxiety that fuels the emotions of those impacted,” said Poncin. “This is a force of nature that has been with us and will be with us for as long as we can see. It is really up to us to come to terms with how we are going to coexist with it.”

Bill Avey, forest supervisor on the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest, said fire is part of the landscape and managers need to use all of the tools they have available to them.

“We are going to be living with fire, that is the hard reality,” said Avey. “We need to treat the landscape appropriately and use every opportunity we have to take advantage of the tools in the right place at the right time to make it a community that socially accepts fire and one that we can live with and minimizes its impacts to the humans.”

Questions asked of the panel:

Will insurance rates increase because of the wildfires? “The short answer is it is too soon to tell,” Rindal said. “The claims that we had were mostly small.”

Are insurance companies going to leave Montana because of the wildfire threat? Rindal said there have been a couple but does not think it is something customers need to worry about. She added companies may change their restrictions and have more restrictions on defensible space but it is still too soon to tell.

What are the responsibilities of the homeowner and insurance companies for wildfire? Arno said it is the homeowner’s responsibility to ensure that the space around their home is defensible and there are not receptive fuels near the structure.

Rindal said that while a FireWise rating for a community helps, it doesn’t solve the problem. She said insurance companies are trying to mitigate their risk with higher deductible and higher premium for homeowners that choose the currently trendy wood-shake roof.

Hardy highlighted retired scientist Jack Cohen’s work in the home ignition zone. Cohen proved that radiate energy is not sufficient to ignite wood if it is more than 100 feet away. The receptor (needles, patio furniture, broom, floor mats) is the place where homeowners can affect the home ignition zone because lofted embers often are the cause of home ignitions from wildfire.

Will air quality regulations allow for an increase in the use of prescribed fire? Coefield said there is not an inability to increase smoke, but thinks it needs to be done “very smart and be able to take advantage when those perfect windows come up.” She said that she has seen perfect windows get passed up because the resources are not in place.

What do we know about long-term health effects of smoke? What should we know but don’t? And should we have HEPA air filters on hand given future projections? Coefield said that there is not a lot of data on long-term health effects since wildfire smoke has always been treated as short, acute exposure. The general understanding is people will recover. But during the recovery period people experience worse colds, are more susceptible to the flu. Yes, people should get a HEPA filters because it allows people to create a clean space in a home that is the next best solution to leaving the area.

How will wildland firefighters be impacted as fires get worse and management strategies change? Poncin said the situations managers are willing to put people in has changed and he expects will continue to change. Decisions are based on the questions: what is the value for the exposure and what is gained by putting people in harm’s way?

Avey said since 1994 17-20 firefighters have been lost per year in wildland fire activities. When there were 18 large tankers, statistics said there was an 80 percent chance that one would go down during the fire season.

“Those are the real odds we are playing with. We are playing with people’s lives,” said Avey. “I think it is incumbent on us that our management strategies to be about minimizing exposure as much as we can. I think all of us as members of society have a moral obligation to understand that and be part of that.”

How much of the landscape should we try to control versus how much should we allow nature processes to continue? Hardy said that 100 years of fire exclusion was active management “We have actively, deliberately made choices that excluded fire from the landscape,” said Hardy. “If there is push back to now actively change that, let’s not be in denial that we are trying to mitigate some of our deliberate choices from before.”

Higuera questioned what is meant by natural landscapes. Since humans have affected every landscape, past human actions must be accounted for and “we need to think hard about what we value, why we value that and why it varies across the landscape.”

Arno added that if fuel treatments were focused in the low elevations and homes were resistant to embers, “we could make a huge difference in this problem and save a lot of money.”

How do we incentivize our neighbors to mitigate their fuels so the work done by those who have mitigated their fuels is not wasted? Arno said that he didn’t feel that anyone’s work is wasted for their property. One way they are incentivizing neighbors is when work is done on adjacent public lands they get surrounding landowners to build excitement and take up the cause with their neighbors. Arno highlighted Bob Wasson on the Double Arrow where he reached out to more than 200 landowners to encourage them to mitigate their property.

Rindal said that this fire season was an eye opener for everyone. She thinks that those that may have been resistant to treating their property before may now be more receptive. She said insurance companies may add restrictions which would be an incentive to getting insurance.

Despite detailed information of local access roads and homes by local fire districts, when new crews came in they seemed uninformed. Why? Poncin said that there is a rigid process of transition for new resources on the fire but until they drive the roads they may seem uninformed. Poncin added the use of mobile technology is gaining traction to help provide accurate, detailed, up-to-date information at their fingertips.

Avey said that some areas still don’t have rural addressing systems. This makes it very difficult for someone who doesn’t know the area.

How do we find the courage to restrict residential sprawl in the Wildland Urban Interface? Arno said every home that might seem like it is in the WUI should be fire safe and deal with the fuels around it so it is not an issue.

The forum was hosted by Treesource. The full recording is available on Treesource’s Youtube Channel


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