Wildfire Experts Offer History Lesson On The Flathead's Big Burns

Feb 23, 2018

Even with two feet of snow on the ground, homeowners and fire managers in the Flathead Valley are thinking about fire season. FireSafe Flathead kicked off a four-part lecture series about wildland fire in western Montana at Flathead Valley Community College Thursday night. MTPR's Nicky Ouellet brings us the highlights.

Forty people nod along as Rick Trembath ticks off historic fires in and around the Flathead Valley.

"So, '88 was a heck of a fire year, and the Red Bench in the North Fork was part of that event."

Trembath is retired now, but his 53 years of firefighting, plus some tenacious digging through historical records and photographs, have made him a font of institutional knowledge about the history of wildland fire in northwest Montana.

He and Tony Harwood, a retired firefighter for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, shared their research to kick off the Wildland Fire in Western Montana community lecture series with an illustrated talk about the history of fire in northwest Montana.

"Fire's always been a part of the landscape, forever, here. It's going to burn."

Trembath punctuated his talk with 100-year-old photos of firefighters and grave sites, details about fire budgets and tidbits of legendary wildfire trivia. The story that emerged from his march through 150 years of fires is that northwest Montana is likely due for a big burn soon, along the lines of the fires of 1910.

"What I'm trying to do is, we have a history of fires in northwest Montana, and that history is of some large fires that like to travel a long ways in a short amount of time. And once they get going, there's no firefighting effort in the world that will stop them."

Tony Harwood with the Tribes pointed out that before white settlement, Native Americans had a very different attitude about fire on the landscape.

"Look at how open it was, even in 1960. Look at how much has changed for encroaching Doug fir and the canopy of the trees opening up."

Harwood showed side-by-side pictures dating back to the 1800s and today to compare burn scars. He spoke of traditional uses of fire, like burning to regenerate foods and medicinal plants and smoking out game animals during hunts. He says the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are combining traditional ecological knowledge with modern fire-lab science to restore historical burn cycles on the Flathead Reservation.

"What the natives did back there in pre-settlement times is coming full circle to inform our practices today," Harwood said.

Harwood and Trembath ended the lecture with a Q-and-A, during which someone asked how logging affects wildland fire.

"Logging can be very beneficial, with being able to support firefighting efforts and reduce fire intensity. If done wrong, it can very much do the opposite and support fire intensity," Trembath answered.

By way of example, he said in the 1970s, when loggers were clear-cutting hillsides, the expectation was that they’d come back periodically to thin out new growth.

"When that didn't happen, we got way overabundance of regeneration, and now it's a very volatile fuel type," he said.

Trembath will go into more detail about fire suppression and behavior at the next Wildfire in Western Montana lecture, slated for Thursday, March 1 at 6 p.m. at Flathead Valley Community College.