Hotter summers mean larger, more destructive fires

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The Howe Ridge Fire burns in Glacier Park last August. USGS scientists say hotter summers will mean more fires larger than 1,000 acres in the western U.S. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News photo)

Several government agencies came together at the Montana House in Apgar Thursday to give residents a history of wildfire in the area and teach them how to better protect their homes against such fires.

The public meeting was just one in a series that have been taking place across the Flathead Valley and beyond over the past few months as the agencies have come together to help form a national cohesive wildfire management strategy.

“I think it is important to remind ourselves that we chose to live in a place that will always have a fire season. We chose to live in an ecological system that had adapted and evolved with fire,” DNRC Local Service Forester Ali Ulwelling said. “People are moving into and building in places that burn and that comes with a lot of responsibility.”

According to former Glacier National Park Fire Management Officer Dave Soleim, the park averages 14 fires per year, with the highest year having more than 60 and the lowest total in 1964, when no fires were reported. There were eight fires last year and 22 reported in 2017.

During his part of the presentation, Flathead National Forest Fire Management Officer Andy Huntsberger showed a series of maps that highlighted a remarkably similar pattern of fires in the years between 1889 and 1930 and those from 1980-2016. Just over 1.2 million acres burned in the Glacier National Park area between 1889 and 1930, with 675,000 acres burned from 1980-2016. Only 40,000 acres burned from 1930-1979 due to a combination of fewer fires and the government’s policy of suppressing all wildfires during that time. Huntsberger said while this policy may have kept the number of fires to a minimum, it also allowed forests to grow unchecked and accumulate more fuel, leading to larger, more intense fires today. As a result, firefighters have had to change to way they fight wildfires.

“We are going to suppress fires. Fire is a good thing in the ecosystem, but when it is burning down your garage or your fence, you are probably not going to say ‘Hey, that fire is playing an excellent role in the ecosystem,’” Huntsberger said. “We are going to suppress fires, but at the same time, we are going to be looking for opportunities to manage fires to the benefit of the ecosystem.”

So, what is causing the rising number of wildfires in the area and in the American West? According to U.S. Geological Survey scientist Dan Fagre, a changing climate and temperature increase over the past few decades are leading culprits, along with increased human activity in fire-prone areas.

“Climate does have a role to play in fire, as do people in where we build and what we do,” he said. “Climate change is like a multiplier in the background. When it is changing, it can make fire seasons much worse.”

According to Fagre, a 50-year decline in the annual snowpack in Montana, coupled with a 1.8 degree average temperature increase have led to more large fires throughout the region. The increase has been even more severe in the spring in summer months, which have seen a average temperature increase of 2.1 degrees.

While the amount of precipitation has stayed relatively constant, the higher temperatures have led to an earlier snow melt, meaning drier late-summer conditions with more vegetation to burn.

Fagre says that research has shown a large increase of fires larger than 1,000 acres over the past few decades, with there being 3.5 times more such fires in the western U.S. since 1970, burning seven times more acreage than previous fires. The news gets worse for the Northern Rockies, which has seen those types of fires increase 10 fold with 25 times more acreage burned in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming alone.

“These new fires are larger and more dangerous to fight,” he said. “They are creating their own weather that create fire behaviors we have not had to deal with before.”

So, what can land and homeowners do to protect their property? Ulwelling suggests the use of a zone system, creating rings of protective zones around houses in fire-prone areas.

Zone one should be a well-irrigated area that encircles the structure for at least 30 feet on all sides. Zone Two should include low-growing, well-irrigated vegetation and zone three can have more dense vegetation, but should be well-maintained.

More information on protecting homes and property from fire can be found at www.firewise.org.

If fire does approach, Flathead County Emergency Services Manager Rick Sacca says it is important to know the difference between an evacuation warning and an evacuation order. A warning means that residents should be prepared to leave while an evacuation order means residents should leave immediately.

Sacca also stressed that those who feel threatened by fire do not have to wait for an evacuation order to leave.

“If you think you should leave, then leave. Do not wait for the government to tell you whether you should feel safe or not,” he said. “If you feel unsafe, then you should leave.”

Despite assurances from all agencies at the meeting that they will be working more closely than ever to protect home and landowners from wildfire this summer, several West Glacier residents were still unhappy with the way the park deals with its fires, saying they were worried fires could start in the park and spread to threaten their homes and property.

“I think it is pretty clear, from a fire history standpoint, that there have not been a lot of fires that have come out of the park and into the National Forest. To be honest, we do not have the authority to do any kind of timber management inside the national park,” Park Superintendent Jeff Mow responded. “That being said, there is absolutely no question that Glacier National Park has some work to do when it comes to fuels management as neighbors around private land and significant structures inside the park. We are addressing those things.”

According to Ulwelling, keeping the area safer from fire is a group effort.

“I like to think that we are pieces in a puzzle,” she said. “As we start working together, the place where we live become safer.”

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