Slash and burn 

Climate change + commercial logging = big fire

Around 3 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 3, lightning sparked a blaze near the Jocko Lakes about 10 miles west of Seeley Lake. Fanned by gusty weekend winds, the fire ripped its way eastward across a patchwork of private, federal and state-owned land, blowing up to 18,000 acres by Sunday and earning designation as the nation’s number-one priority wildfire. Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared a state of emergency after telling reporters that the Jocko Lakes fire was “the fire we’ve all prayed for 25 years wouldn’t occur.”

As the hottest and driest summer the state has seen in years continues without relief, fire managers across the region are reporting unprecedented fire behavior. Forest Service fire information officer Pat Cross told reporters on Aug. 4 that the Jocko Lakes fire displayed “activity firefighters haven’t seen before in this part of the world.” The fire spread from 10 acres to 300 acres in about 30 minutes, and on Saturday it advanced five miles in as many hours, according to one fire official.

Across the West, forest advocates and wildfire experts are now pointing to this summer’s fire behavior as a harbinger of future fire seasons, and looking for lessons to learn as the globe continues to warm. 

“What’s happening is that climate change is colliding with past land-management abuses,” says Tim Ingalsbee, executive director of the Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology.

Decades of patchwork clear cutting, forest thinning and road building has left a landscape ripe for extreme fire behavior, says Ingalsbee. Increasingly extreme weather—stronger winds, lower humidity, higher temperatures—is combining with hotter, more open, dryer and windier forests, creating disastrous conditions.

According to Kent Slaughter, fire behavior analyst for the Alaska Type 1 incident management team that’s managing the Jocko Lakes fire, the blaze made its biggest run from west to east through the Placid Creek drainage. Aerial photos show that much of that terrain has been heavily logged. As of Monday, Aug. 13, the fire had burned 20,800 acres. More than 13,000 acres of that burned on private land mostly owned by Plum Creek.

“There is a mixed pattern of logging in there,” Slaughter says. “A lot of those units that you are seeing are very heavy reproduction.”

George Wuerthner, editor of the 2006 book The Wildfire Reader: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, points out that recently logged terrain does not necessarily create fire breaks: “Big logs don’t burn very readily…But after a logging operation you have a lot of branches that are one to four inches in diameter, and that kind of stuff burns really well,” Wuerthner says in an interview.

Commercial logging also opens up the forest to rapid growth of shrubs, bushes and small trees, Wuerthner says. Those fuels dry out quickly and burn readily, making them a prime ignition source for larger logs and trees.

Slaughter says he is less concerned about fire behavior in areas around the lake that have been thinned, opening up the forest crown, though he declined to comment on how commercial logging in the Placid Creek drainage may have impacted the rate of the fire’s spread.

“Then we start getting into the politics of fuels and thinning treatments, and I’m going to stay away from those,” he says.

Slaughter might stay away from politics of fire and fuels, but politicians sure won’t.

While many of the state’s biggest fires are burning on land that has been heavily logged, or are burning within wilderness boundaries, Montana Sen. Jon Tester recently implied that lawsuits over timber sales are partly to blame for what he termed, “the buildup of dry, ready-to-burn fuel in Montana’s forests.”

“We’ll never get back to the timber harvest levels of the 1970s, nor, probably, should we,” Tester said on the Senate floor Aug. 3. “But the pendulum has swung too far, and now we are too often fighting in the courts about cutting down trees. Quite frankly, we don’t have enough people working out in the woods. That’s a problem economically and ecologically.”

Forest protection advocate Matthew Koehler of the Missoula-based WildWest Institute points out that only one timber sale in the state—the 1.35-million board feet Keystone Quartz sale in the Beaverhead/Deerlodge National Forest—is under a court-ordered injunction to halt logging: “To give you some indication of how small of a timber sale it is,” Koehler says, “that’s approximately one one-thousandth of the total volume of timber that’s harvested in Montana annually.”

Koehler agrees that more people ought to be working in the woods, but he says the focus should be on reducing fire danger around homes and communities rather than cutting trees deep in the forests, potentially creating prime conditions for fires to spread.

Wuerthner recently toured the 3,100-acre Angora fire that destroyed 255 homes southwest of Lake Tahoe earlier this summer. He says the majority of the homes that burned weren’t a direct result of the wildfire.

“Structural fires put out way more heat than any forest fire,” Wuerthner says. “What happened was a number of houses that didn’t have any fire-wise preventative measures done on them caught fire and then burned the neighbors’ houses that did.”

As the Jocko Lakes blaze continues to creep toward Seeley Lake, and residents toil through rolling evacuations, more than 800 firefighters are doing their best to protect homes and businesses. The only thing that will put an end to the danger is a fire-dousing rainstorm. Nobody expects that to happen any time soon

“It will be quite a while longer until we get a season-ending event,” Slaughter says.
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