Even as floodwaters submerge swaths of western Montana, fire scientists and land managers are thinking a season ahead to when fires will bloom on the landscape.
They’re trying to educate the public about a paradoxical concept: Putting fire back on the landscape to avoid smokey summers like last year.
"We don't have a choice about fire," says Mark Finney, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, studying the science of how fires spread.
"We have a choice ... when to have it and what kind to have, but not whether to have it or not."
Finney says we as a society laid the groundwork for the landscape level burns the West has seen in recent years. He says historically, fires in western Montana were more frequent and less intense. They burned through the flammable duff layer regularly but didn’t engulf trees, which meant less smoke.
Years of suppressing moderate burns, or logging trees without clearing away leftover twigs and brush, allowed fuel to build up to unnatural levels, resulting in less frequent large but more severe fires.
"We're burning twice as much as we used to just in the past couple of decades, but we're all burning it under the most extreme conditions when we don’t really have any control over it. And it causes much different fire effects than what those old fires used to. So we're not escaping fire, we're not getting rid of it. We're just changing which kind of fire we have. We're having the worst ones, and it's largely up to us."
Finney says if we shift focus away from reacting to fire, and instead use fire to proactively manage forests, we could have some say in when fires occur and how intensely they burn.
"If you listen to the elected officials and politicians these days, what you hear is the need for a lot more thinning, a lot more harvesting. But they need to be talking more about the need for fire to go along with that."
For example, he pulled up a burn severity map from a 2002 wildfire in Arizona that burned across a mix of untouched forest, patches of commercially logged land and scars from previous prescribed burns.
"The only place in there that's green is where they had recent prescribed burns in the last decade."
He pointed at a section of the map he called a commercial logging area that had obviously burned.
"They had managed pretty much every stick in there. They'd been thinning and managing and cutting everything in there for decades and decades and decades. Yet the only places that this fire moderated was where it hit these prescribed fire units."
Finney says taking logs out of the forest doesn’t do anything to the finer fuels that help a fire move around. The only way to change that fuel complex, as he calls it, is to burn it off.
"We need fire. Fire is the essential feature of fuel treatments."
Finney talked at a lunch lecture hosted by City Club Missoula Monday. He was joined by Greg Poncin, who has been a type 1 incident commander directing wildland firefighting crews for almost a decade.
Poncin agrees the science is there, but adds the public might not be.
"The operational end of this is we recognize we need to do more but there are tradeoffs. It costs money, it takes people and it puts smoke in the air. And those are things we struggle with as land managers to get acres treated. It's hard," Poncin says.
As an incident commander, Poncin oversees firefighting on the roughly 2 percent of fires that escape initial attack and become the large burns you hear about on the news. Part of his job is choosing where to step in to save a home or road and where to let the fire do what it will.
He says often, debates about firefighting overly simplify the decisions he makes on the ground.
"When we start getting these polarized conversations about, 'We should let it burn. We need more resource benefit.' Or, 'No, we need to put them all out.' Those conversations I would dearly love to see us start moving away from and start focusing on what are the values and how are we going to address those."
Poncin says people living in fire-prone areas need to shoulder some of the responsibility protecting those values.
"Not only are they helping themselves by making their homes more fire safe, but they're not requiring firefighters, either the local volunteer firefighters or wildland firefighters to go into a hazardous situation to save their property that they could have dealt with earlier."
Like Poncin, fire scientist Mark Finney emphasized the need for taking a proactive approach to forest and fire management.
"As a public we should be demanding of our agencies, whether it's state or federal or even private landowners, do something different. What is there to do? The science is pretty clear on that. Yes, it's going involve short-termed inconvenience, whether it’s smoke on a persistent basis in the fall and in the spring, but there are benefits for that in the future."
Fire managers are predicting another severe burn year for Montana.