Two extraordinary things happened at the incident command post for the Lolo Peak Fire Thursday. One, it rained a little. The National Weather Service said .01 inches of precipitation came down mid-day. Two, a pair of cabinet secretaries, a U.S. Senator, and Montana’s congressman visited.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Congressman Greg Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines got a briefing from the fire management team, and then held a short press conference.
Senator Daines kicked things off.
"Montanans are saying we are tired of breathing the smoke. We are tired of seeing these catastrophic wildfires. And either we are gonna better manage our forests, or the forests are gonna manage us."
Senator Daines repeated a refrain that Montana Republicans have been saying for years: That lawsuits from extreme environmental groups are preventing the U.S. Forest Service from carrying out logging and thinning projects that would remove trees and prevent wildfires.
"It is the lawyers who are – funding for these extreme environmental groups — who are having a tremendous impact, devastating impact on allowing us to move forward here on some common sense timber projects," Daines said.
The man who’s in charge of the U.S. Forest Service, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, said that 55 percent of the Forest Service budget is devoted to fighting fires, and that’s directly tied to environmental litigation, because those lawsuits stymie fuels reduction projects.
"And that’s what's evolved into the 55 percent because you couldn't do some of these things that you wanted to it is a cause and effect situation," Perdue said.
Both Perdue and Congressman Greg Gianforte pointed to a 5,000 acre logging project called the Stonewall that was approved by the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest outside Lincoln in 2016. That was then put on hold in January by a judge responding to a lawsuit from the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council. That area is now burning as part of the Park Creek fire sparked by lightning this summer.
But, after listening to audio of the press conference this afternoon, the dean of the Forestry School at the University of Montana, Tom DeLuca, cautioned against expecting too much from a timber sale or wildfire fuel management projects.
"You have to look at, where were the largest fires in Montana this summer? And where were they in Washington two summers ago? They were in scrubland and rangeland. Thinning a forest doesn't create a no fire, or asbestos forest. It does not create a system that won't burn. It will potentially change the fire behavior on the forest, reduce the severity, perhaps make it more defensible space, but it will not stop fire. On a windy, hot day, a fire will carry right through that understory or in those crowns regardless of whether it's been thinned or not. It does change the behavior.
"I agree with the notion that there's a lot of forests that are in an unnatural state because they were in a managed forest but then management was discontinued on it, to a great degree on federal lands because of environmental regulations and also litigation. So it is correct that there's a lot of acreage that's in rough shape that will burn under a higher-severity condition than it would naturally," DeLuca says.
There are also studies that try to quantify how much more severe wildfires are in recent years due to climate change. DeLuca says it’s clear that human-caused climate change from burning fossil fuels is making fire seasons longer and more intense.
I asked Secretary Perdue what role, if any, he thinks climate change is playing in recent long, intense wildfire seasons. Here’s his response, followed by Senator Daines.
"I had a good review of our Forest Service people here going all the way back to 1890. We've had major fires, large fires in the eastern part of the nation at periods of time. There obviously is climate change, temperature change, weather change, and we have to deal with it, we have to adapt to it. We have to manage the forests, getting ahead of that. What you see on some of the privately managed land where I'm from, and even out here with the Plum Creek property, you see less forest fires. So lets do what we can, irrespective of the cause or the effect, lets do what we can, that's why we're here. We can't affect what the weather is, but we can affect how we manage these forests to reduce the impact of forest fires," Perdue said.
"Just back on history though," Sen. Daines says, "go back to 1910. What happened in 1910? We had 'the big burn; 3 million acres in Montana and Idaho, 87 lives lost. In the 1930s we had the great dust bowl. My ancestors living up on the High Line of Montana had to leave our state to go to Canada to survive. And so the climate has always been changing. We go through warmer cycles, cooler cycles, droughts, excessive precipitation. We are in a warm cycle right now, we are in drought conditions here in Montana consequently we’re having a severe fire season."
I asked retired University of Montana Professor Steve Running to listen to those remarks and give us his perspective. Running is a climate scientist who was a member of the International Panel on Climate Change team that won the Nobel Prize in 2007.
"What I heard is the kind of evasive response, 'yeah weather's always changing and we've had dry seasons and fire seasons before,' and so the implication that there's nothing really new and this is just part of natural cycles. Of course in the climate change research community we've well documented in dozens and dozens of peer reviews papers that the fire season's getting longer and overall we're burning more acres than in the past and that we're on a trend of longer fire seasons and bigger fires," Running says.
Eric Whitney: In your eyes that's a direct result of human-caused climate change?
"Right. It's always the case that if you pick any one year out you can say there's been other years like this, but when we study climate, we're studying decades, multi-decadal trends, and we clearly document multi-decadal trends of longer, warmer summers and more, bigger fires."
Back at the press conference Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that his goal is to learn what the Forest Service can do to get out ahead of devastating wildfires and prevent them from happening. He said that in the short term, he’s encouraging Congress to separate his land management budget from firefighting costs, so he doesn’t have to rob the former to pay the latter.
"That's a critical issue for Congress. Hopefully we can get that done," Perdue says. "I believe there's a lot of momentum. I'm meeting with the Office of Management and Budget, and the FEMA people, Department of Homeland Security to talk about whether we do it in the Budget Control Act or the Stafford Act, we've got to have help to get ahead of these issues."
Secretaries Perdue and Zinke, Senator Daines and Congressman Gianforte spent about 90 minutes at incident command for the Lolo Peak fire Thursday.