Iowa Public Television


Western Wildfires Raise Burning Questions

posted on September 7, 2007

In spite of a 2001 order, The Government Accountability Office says the Interior Department hasn't made global warming a high priority. The GAO says climate change, not land management techniques, is to blame for the country having earlier snowmelts, longer summer droughts and bigger Western wildfires.

The last three years have been the highest wildfire acreage damage on record. Last year alone, 9.8 million acres burned. This year's damage is slightly lower, but with an earlier than usual start to the fire season, flames have ravaged millions of acres in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho. But as Producer Andrew Batt explains, no where has there been more fire damage than in Montana.


Fire PSA, Smokey the Bear: "Fire! Fire! Run for your lives…"

For decades, the image of Smokey the Bear was engrained in the minds of Americans and forest fires were deemed a preventable menace ravaging the rural countryside.

Smokey: "Remember kids, only you can prevent forest fires…"

But more than a half-century after the aggressive public information campaign began, fires are making a resurgence and remain an enormous threat to much of the West.

Expansion and development in rural America has placed an increasing number of residents in the cross-hairs of a potential natural disaster.

The State of Montana is no stranger to fast-burning wildfires. Throughout the 2007 summer fire season, Big Sky Country was home to many of the nation's hottest and fastest-growing wildfires – including the Chippy Creek fire – the state's largest at nearly 100,000 acres burned.

Throughout the summer, the smoke-filled mountains of Western Montana were the front line for hundreds of the nation's elite firefighting teams.

Crews from across the U.S. and Canada have converged in the state's rugged northwest corner.

The crews, sometimes over 500 strong on an individual fire, work two-week rotating shifts and spend their days coordinating fire lines and air support.

Dave Daniels, Fire Information Officer: "Well this is about as dangerous a condition that a firefighter can get themselves into. Here's where the fire seems to be setting down some in days previous but there's still a lot of heat out there and all you need is the dry conditions that we have today plus the wind and that can ignite torching…"

Torching was subdued when Market to Market visited the front lines in late August after a brief cold front but danger always is a concern for firefighters.

Moments after these shots of crews during routine mop-up work were taped, we were asked to evacuate the area. Less than 30 minutes later, the same location was engulfed in flames.

Lisa Krueger, District Ranger: "Mop up means you're going in, you're checking for hot spots, you're taking your hand crews and they're feeling the line and they're going in any time they see a smoke they're putting it out."

The crewmembers say they can rarely control the fires, in most cases they merely hope to contain them and wait for the internal flames to burnout. Using advanced GPS mapping and fire suppression techniques, the crews work with a much more sophisticated set of tools than in previous decades.

The teams are often made up of seasoned veterans who return to Western states time and time again for fire season.

In addition to satisfaction, some firefighters use the summer season as their main source of revenue for the entire year.

But taxpayers are footing the bill for what is an extremely-expensive and consistent natural disaster. The combination of paying, feeding, and transporting fire teams alone is costly. Adding water tankers, heavy equipment, helicopters, and airplanes dramatically escalates those costs.

Dave Daniels, Fire Information Officer: "The other thing is the long term impact of taxpayers. I mean this is just one fire where we are spending over 12 million dollars on. There's dozens of others in the west and all of them are costing major league dollars too."

Those dollars are running out in Montana, where the state's governor recently was granted a dramatic increase in firefighting funds for future seasons. But the money alone may not suppress the growth of wildfires.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana: "The forest service is spending close to fifty percent of their budget on firefighting. That leaves half the money that they should have for forest management because they spent it on fighting."

Senator Jon Tester, who blames an overactive fire season - in large part - on global warming, says a new federal trust fund for fighting wildfires is essential. He argues the money could free up forest service dollars to manage the woodlands and keep the amount of timber for fuel at lower levels.

Meeting with fire crews and taking part in morning briefings, the first-term Montana Democrat seems troubled about the prospect of future wildfire seasons in the midst of extremely low moisture levels.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana: "What I was told here and I've been told other fires it's at 3% and the lumberyard the two by fours the two by sixes in there the dimension lumbers is at about 8%. So it's very, very dry and then when you have lightening strikes or cigarette and man-made fire, whatever it might be, it's gonna burn, it's gonna burn fast, it's gonna burn hot and it's gonna be a lot harder to control."

Controlling fire is difficult business. Just ask Jon Brass, a retired 28-year forest service employee and cattle rancher from Western Montana.

Brass lost hundreds of acres of rangeland to the Chippy Creek fire and points the blame of a hyper-active fire season on what he calls "tinderbox conditions."

Jon Brass, Lonepine, MT: "We have all that fuel because we took Smokey the Bear's advice and put so many fires out and now we have all the excess fuel."

"And I know folks don't want to see a piece of equipment out in our national forests but we're at the point where we're going to have to. We have to go out and manage our national forest and get rid of that excess fuel and what we call ladder fuels and we can save our national forest land."

Brass's sentiment isn't likely to draw acceptance in the circles of many environmental protection groups that caution against logging activities. But in Western Montana, where wildfire season isn't expected to cease until winter snowfall, any option is "on the table."

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: fire firefighters forests Montana news