I live in a part of the West where protecting houses from fire is a dangerous and expensive business. It’s that incendiary mix of homes and forest alongside publicly owned lands, the kind of place that’s bankrupting the U.S. Forest Service.
My home is in northwestern Montana. It’s not a flashy McMansion; it’s a modest house built 30 years ago, and it’s just two miles from town. But my neighbor happens to be 30,000 acres of timber-company land, and its neighbor is a national forest. Any day, a campfire or lightning strike could erase my home.
Westerners know that wildfires grew bigger, hotter and more costly in the last decade. Although fringe elements blame environmentalists or too much wilderness, the true cause is the hapless combination of a century of Forest Service fire suppression, diminishing snowpacks and the growing droughts associated with climate change—not to mention a reckless housing boom on fire-prone lands.
In my community, the government offers grants for landowners to thin unhealthy forests, making them more resistant to big fires. The idea is to mimic the low-intensity ground fires once common here by removing litter, pruning trees and thinning over-crowded stands.
It’s a treatment long overdue on the dense woods that have taken over one acre near my house. Last autumn, foresters walked the land with me, showing me how to make it fire-safe. In late February, with the snow still three feet deep, I went out with my loppers and crosscut saw and got to work.
It seemed a simple project: Each day after work I’d lop branches until dusk, pruning up to 10 feet. My wife, Barbara, piled the branches, and even as bark and lichen fell on our faces, we enjoyed ourselves. We found fox and grouse tracks in the snow and a magnificent cottonwood we had never even noticed.
In March, we got busy on the fir thickets. This was easy, too, removing spindly saplings that starve bigger trees and offer flames a ladder to the canopy. The ladder can transform a creeping ground fire into a roaring wall of flame. As we removed the last saplings, we began to focus on taller firs. And that’s when our confidence wavered.
With the forest more open, we became nervous, wondering if we were creating a sanitized park or losing privacy. Then there’s another problem: We’re tree-huggers. Removing fir thickets is one thing, but choosing older firs to go is harder. One offers shade for a young cedar, while another shelters some well-used deer beds. We decided to wait.
We moved to the cedars, growing thick in the absence of fire. But cedars are special. Along the Northwest coast they provided canoes, fishhooks, clothing and planks for longhouses. Here in the Northern Rockies, their fibrous bark and drooping fronds are unique among our spruce and fir. We cut a few, but quickly moved on.
The spruce should be easier. They’re abundant along the edge, with their crowns mixing together and inviting an intense fire. When we fell small-diameter trees we can almost hear the larger ones sigh in relief. But after six trees we stall again. We really should take out some taller ones, but each reaches skyward with pointy crowns, their trunks straight as a ship’s mast. We stare for a while, then walk away.
Removing a few snags should be simple. We quickly down four, our saw gliding through their brittle trunks. But we become bogged down about the rest. The woodpeckers are frequenting one, while another—broken at 30 feet—might be nice for an owl. Barbara walks to a scraggly pine and shakes it. “How about this one?” It’s a runt, with a scant crown and rounded top, yet it’s a white pine, and we only have a few. We leave it.
One afternoon in late March, I’m out there alone. After long deliberation, I decide to remove a tall fir. It’ll create some much-needed spacing between crowns. Finally, a firm decision. But before I can make the first cut, Barbara arrives. She shatters my resolve, pointing out that two nearby birches are dying. Removing the fir might create too large an opening, eliminating winter shelter for deer and others.
We go inside. From the window, I see we’ve created a giant slash pile, but the acre still looks thick. I’m learning that reversing a century of fire suppression while maintaining a diverse forest for the future doesn’t happen overnight.
Maybe our woods just need a good fire, not a couple of hack imitators like us. They need something indiscriminate, something drastic, like a wolf on a young elk. It may not look pretty, but just as wolves strengthen elk herds by culling the weak, fire strengthens forests. Without remorse, it removes the young and sick, favoring big Doug firs or ancient cedars. The stories are singed across their trunks.
All this makes me think of the Forest Service, which manages millions of acres of fire-starved woods. The agency doesn’t pine over cutting trees, but it suffers a paralysis similar to ours. Often, citizens opposed to logging thwart its thinning proposals. Sometimes the distrust is justified, when logging projects mask themselves as fire restoration. Added to that tug-of-war, bureaucratic requirements hobble attempts to use prescribed and natural fire. Then there’s the budget crisis, which makes simply functioning a heroic achievement for a collapsing bureaucracy.
In the end, 95 percent of fires on public lands still get suppressed each summer, and fire-prevention projects lag far behind. This winter, George Bush lopped away even more at fire-prevention funding, further endangering firefighters, homes and forests. Meanwhile, living with inevitable fire is anything but easy, and that goes for the government, as well as for landowners like me.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in Alaska and lives part-time in Montana.