Rethinking Our Relationship With Fire

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

During this fire season, millions of acres of land have burned throughout the western U.S., with over 4 million acres burned in California alone, and the fire season is not over. Fires have destroyed thousands of homes, dozens of lives have been lost, and persistent smoke from these fires has created hazardous air quality across the West. The long-term impacts of smoke inhalation are yet to be realized. Near Bozeman, we recently experienced the fast-moving Bridger Foothills Fire, which consumed 30 homes in a matter of hours.

The factors driving the extreme nature of these fires are three-fold: persistent climate patterns in the western U.S. are creating sustained periods of hot, dry weather that is conducive to fire; warm conditions are drying out fuels, creating explosive conditions when ignition occurs; and a growing number of homes and other structures in flammable forests and shrublands is increasing the danger of fires for human health and safety.

The conflagrations this summer are not unexpected; fire and climate scientists have been predicting their likelihood for a number of years. Yet, the intensity, size and speed of recent fires and the weather conditions that they have created have surprised even the scientific community – in California, for example, the Creek Fire spawned tornado-like conditions.

Why are recent fire seasons so severe? The answer begins with recognizing that fire is a natural and inevitable component of ecosystems in the western U.S. Historical records show us that fires have shaped ecosystems for thousands of years and that natural patterns of fire size and severity vary across different forest types. These records also show clear linkages between changes in climate, vegetation and fires over time. It is only in the 20th century that we have tried to control fires at large scales and break these linkages, and in many places, we have been remarkably successful. We now realize that decades of fire suppression have had critical unintended consequences – an accumulation of woody fuels, especially in dry forests and shrublands.

How can we prevent the worst outcomes for humans? The answer lies in addressing all of the causes: slow a warming climate, address the accumulation of fuels in dry forests and shrublands, and rethink where and how we live.

First, fire is a natural ecosystem process but current climate change is increasing the size, severity and intensity of wildfires. This is evidenced by the increase in area burned in the West since the 1980s. The Montana Climate Assessment suggests that this trend will continue in our state well into the future. Over half of the area burned by wildfires in the West is attributed to the added influence of rising temperatures. This crisis will only be solved by reducing the emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from fossil fuels.

Second, dry forests and shrublands, which historically burned every few years to decades, have been the most altered by human development and land use. The application of prescribed fires is the most ecologically appropriate tool that we have to restore low-intensity surface burns to these vegetation types and to reduce the high smoke levels that occur from large wildfires. We can learn from indigenous cultures who have long burned dry forests and grasslands at regular intervals to safeguard their communities and promote desired resources.

For prescribed burning to work, it must be undertaken regularly and at safe times of year – as is done annually in pine plantations in the southeastern U.S. Tribes and agencies are working to apply prescribed fires across western landscapes, yet the challenge of reducing fuel loads across large areas in a timely manner is daunting. And, prescribed burning is not a solution for all forest types, especially those that naturally experience infrequent, severe fires. Because severe fires are natural in wetter, often remote, mid- and high-elevation forests, it will be important to allow wildfires in these settings to burn so that patchworks of different tree ages can limit subsequent fire severity and spread.

Third, because fires will be part of our future, communities and individuals need to plan and prepare for wildfire. Embers can travel miles ahead of an active fire and ignite homes by entering soffit vents, landing on ignitable roofs and lighting fuels adjacent to the home. Houses with protective vents and screens prevent embers from entering a home, double-paned windows are needed to withstand the heat and pressure of fire, and fire-resistant roofing and siding reduces the likelihood of igniting the home. Removing fuels within 100 yards of structures and building with less flammable building materials also reduces fire risk.

As we set new records for annual area burned and for numbers of homes destroyed, lives lost and smoke-filled days, we are faced with a new reality. The message is clear: Fire is a natural part of our western ecosystems and will be part of our future. Despite best efforts, we cannot manage our way out of the enormous climate-driven fires that are occurring across the West but we can adopt practices that can help us better live with wildfire into the future.

The first step is to acknowledge that wildfire is inevitable under climate change. The next step is to tackle the problem on multiple fronts: reduce emission of greenhouse gases that are warming our climate, reintroduce fire to landscapes where it is safe to do so, let fires burn in remote areas, modify our buildings and landscaping and rethink where we live. As individuals and communities, we need to take steps that reduce the negative impacts of fire and better plan and prepare for a future with wildfire.

This oped first appeared in the Bozeman Chronicle.

Dave McWethy is an assistant professor of Earth Sciences at Montana State University. Cathy Whitlock is regents professor of Earth Sciences at Montana State University.