Missoula is a community that relies on its natural resources to sustain a vibrant economy. The beautiful Clark Fork, Blackfoot, and Bitterroot rivers flow pristine water that we take advantage of to float, raft, and guide. Our breweries use this water to brew the cherished beer we have available for locals and visitors alike. Our watersheds are home to magnificent native species of fish (including the endangered Bull trout), birds of abundance, and otters and other furry critters that we Montanans all co-exist with and value.
The steadily increasing size and intensity of modern wildfires threaten our watersheds by sterilizing the ground, making it unstable by eliminating its vegetative integrity and later washing sediment into our creeks and rivers. Reduced water quality creates uninhabitable conditions for our wildlife, murky and non-aesthetic water that deters recreation, and threatens our ability to consume the clean water we need for both our homes and our businesses.
It is undeniable that the 2017 fire season not only hurt the health of the public from the excessive amounts of smoke in the air but also hurt business by deterring the amount of visitors that come to Missoula. In 2017 water levels were abnormally low, moisture was virtually non-existent for the entire summer, and a total of $378 Million dollars were spent in Montana alone battling the blazes. While the incoming firefighter traffic added some business and dollars that were missed from visitors back into our economy, is that really what is ideal for Missoula? Do we want to be known as the community that gets its money from our heroes that risk their lives to retain our livelihood?
Inevitably fire is a natural part of our landscape, it was here before us and will be here after us. Our forests rely on fire, Montana has native tree species that are fire adapted and actually rely on it to scarify (not sterilize) the ground in order to establish reprod. Fire cleans up ground fuels that accumulate, making room for tree seedlings to establish. Birds and nesters use fire-killed trees for shelter.
So what has changed? If fire is good and natural why is it so devastating today? Turning the calendars back provides some explanation. In 1935, the Forest Service adopted the “10 a.m. Policy” in response to public outcry of wildfires affecting western livelihoods. This policy held until 1978 and mandated that all reported fires be put out and controlled by 10 am the next day. Putting these fires out allowed for continuous build-up of fuel across our forests. This also allowed for less fire-adapted and more shade-tolerant trees to accumulate in mass quantity under our sun-loving fire adapted species, creating a ladder of fuel from the forest floor to the canopies of our large trees. A recent study shows that Montana has over 30% more trees now than ever before. Warmer climate and denser forests encourage widespread epidemics of insects and disease that easily spread from tree to tree, killing trees and adding more dead wood as fuel for fires. Combine this with the fact that we have created communities adjacent to these potential infernos and not managing the private lands accordingly either. What used to be a 100 acre fire in the forest is now a 100,000 acre inferno in our backyard. All of this resulting in complexities we face today.
Thus, the relevant question is not how can we prevent fire but how can we prevent “bad” fire? And what can we as a community do to sustain our economy and our natural resources? While there are many layers to this, there are preventive applications we can be proactive in doing today. It is important we understand what these are.
First, We can mimic good fire through restoration efforts, cutting the trees that fire would have taken out long ago. This not only restores land but reduces fire intensity . These trees can be sold as wood products to underwrite the costs of the work to take them out and supply money, jobs, and resources back into our local economy. We have an infrastructure in Montana to create these products that most states lack and this infrastructure is essential to our way of life. Products can be made from trees that hold little to no structural integrity. Did you know that even our paper plates and coffee cups come locally from salvaged trees that are not quality enough to make most other products? Technology and utilization efforts have advanced in the field of forest products to even convert wood to energy. We can not only restore our forests back to their historical state but we can use resources from nearly every acre we treat to our advantage.
Secondly, After our forests are back in a historical composition we can put prescribed fire back in them to clean up the ground fuels and fertilize the ground to stimulate reprod of the trees that are there, ensuring fire will not be detrimental to human values for the rest of its rotational period. Did you know that fire in a treated acre in the spring has 17 times less amounts of particulates in the smoke than it would in the summer? We can reduce our health risks and smoke filled valleys in the summer by putting fire on the ground at the right times, introducing only a few weeks of mild smoke in the spring as a replacement.
What a community member can do:
1.Start with understanding and sharing our issues. Educate yourself and others about our current state. Diverse people and thinking will streamline application of solutions. Much of our issues stem from a lack of social license.
2. Support our government agencies that represent our public lands. While we may not all agree with decisions that are made by government agencies, it is important to remember that they do represent us as a community and we must support them to get to where we want to be. It is also important to understand the current difficulties our local agencies face when making these decisions and that there are many political hoops they have to jump through on a higher level to get work done. Patience, persistence, and collaboration will go much further than expressing grief to the wrong players
3. Partner with local organizations. While it will take time to meet all of our objectives there is work happening now on both public and private lands and there are local organizations poised to work together for the greater good. Consultants, contractors, and local non-profits all share similar values in working together towards creating a “fire-adapted community”. Get to know these organizations and find out what similarities your businesses share and how you may help each other. Let us help you get involved with organizations.