Focus on climate change: State agencies struggle to fight, prevent ever-larger wildfires

The 2017 Lolo Peak fire created massive walls of flame and pyrocumulus clouds visible for many miles. Missoula photographer Briar Diggs took this photo from Missoula’s South Hills and posted it on Facebook. (Briar Diggs)

This is the third in a four-day series on climate change in Montana, and what state, local and private officials are doing to address it. The Missoula Current will focus on climate change throughout 2019.

Montana government workers can be hesitant to mention climate change in a state where some still consider the science a liberal myth. In fact, the state’s Fire and Aviation Bureau in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is the one agency actually planning for climate change, especially after the record-setting wildfire season of 2017.

Chief Mike DeGrosky’s Fire Bureau is wrapping up a new strategic plan for the state fire program to guide it through 2025, and the focus is shifting a bit from fire response to community preparedness.

“If we’re planning for the future, we need to at least take an educated guess about what the future will look like. (Looking at climate change) is where we tried to start,” DeGrosky said. “It’s time for us to be completely upfront with our stakeholders – we can’t be everywhere all the time. Communities are going to have to start doing things to survive without the massive intervention by the fire services.”

DeGrosky has seen wildfire trends in Montana change over the years as the climate has changed, producing longer, hotter and drier summers. While his crews used to fight fires from June until September, now they are out on the lines as early as February or March and don’t put their Pulaskis away until December.

“We don’t use the term ‘fire season’ anymore – we use ‘fire year,’ ” DeGrosky said. “Fire years are becoming longer – the period during which we have elevated fire conditions is 40 days longer than it was 30 years ago.”

That makes DeGrosky worried about his crews tiring out. In addition to longer fire years, the burning conditions have become more intense in bad years like 2017, and those bad years, which used to be about six years apart, are occurring more often.

“Even in the slow years like 2018, we still had a one-month period when we had to activate the multi-agency coordination function. We were running short on resources, we were scrambling around, and that was our slowest year in decades,” DeGrosky said.

So far, 2019 isn’t starting off well as far as snowpack, which means it could be another dry summer. Computer models show a trend where summers will have more heat and drought, increasing the likelihood of wildfire.

Janet McDonald shot this time lapse of the Lolo Peak fire’s run in August 2017, sharing it on social media. (Janet McDonald)

**

The threat of wildfire is compounded by the fact that more people keep moving into forested areas of the wildland-urban interface. A 2018 Headwaters Economics report found that 11,000 new homes were built over the past 26 years in high wildfire-hazard areas. Another 17,000 were built in areas of what is now moderate fire danger but that status could worsen in the future. That not only puts people in harm’s way, but it adds unnecessary costs and danger to fire units trying to protect homes.

DeGrosky knows fire crews can only do so much, especially when Montana has only so much money to spend on wildfire suppression. He can’t ask for more resources. Trying to fight the 2017 fires cost the state $74 million, a burden that prompted the 2018 budget cuts that hobbled many state agencies.

“We acknowledge we need more resources, especially in eastern Montana. But we’re looking at how we can do what we do more efficiently and maybe reconfigure the resources we have,” DeGrosky said.

The U.S. Forest Service is struggling with similar limitations, so it recently rolled out its Cohesive Strategy, which emphasizes fire response, fire-adapted communities and resilient landscapes.

The state Fire Bureau’s new strategic plan puts more emphasis on that second category: fire-adapted communities, where houses built of fire-resistant materials and are surrounded by defensible space cleared of trees and debris.

The less fire crews have to worry about people and houses, the more time they can dedicate to controlling fires on the 5.5 million acres of state land that is DeGrosky’s responsibility.

“Response is something we’re good at and have done for a long time. So we will be pushing into the fire-adapted community space really hard,” DeGrosky said.

**

Responsibility for the third piece of the Cohesive Strategy – resilient forests – falls to DNRC state forester Sonya Germann. But she’s less likely to mention climate change as a reason for forest management.

Montana State Forester Sonya Germann

“As a land manager, you have to consider all the variables, and climate change just ends up being one of those variables,” Germann said. “We’re still trying to understand the impacts of climate change on the forest.”

Like DeGrosky, she too will be working on a new plan for forest health as part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s Forests In Focus 2.0. Work will soon begin on the 2020 Forest Action Plan, which will allow the state to work with partners statewide to assess forest conditions and do landscape-scale forest management.

Decades of wildfire suppression have caused a buildup of fuel in the forest that can increase wildfire intensity. The only effective ways to clear the thickets is by thinning and prescribed burning or by allowing wildfires to burn.

Even though the term “forest management” includes many activities, including planting trees or improving roads to limit sediment in streams, the focus is turning more and more to thinning and timber sales since the 2014 Farm Bill passed. The bill created the Good Neighbor Authority, which allows states to be agents of the U.S. Forest Service on thinning and habitat improvement projects.

Soon after that, Bullock identified 5 million acres of national forest land in need of forest management because of their proximity to water sources, communities or important recreation opportunities.

“We’re engaging with all seven national forests to bring them added capacity to get more work done. The conditions of the forest throughout the state of Montana – they need a lot of attention,” Germann said. “We just started in earnest the Good Neighbor Authority program. We sold two timber sales that have restoration outcomes too this past fall. And we have several other forest management projects lined out with the Forest Service.”

Germann anticipates being able to help the Forest Service work on 5,000 to 10,000 acres a year. But with 5 million acres to treat, “it’s a decadal process.”

“It’s daunting but it’s important. It’s important for us to focus on those areas that will bring us the greatest value and best outcomes for our communities,” Germann said.

But not everyone sees the push for resilient forests as positive. Some say it’s a way to use climate change and the fear of wildfires to increase logging in areas that are better left alone.

In September, 217 scientists, land managers and educators set an open letter to Congress, asking them to rethink the Good Neighbor Authority while working on the 2018 Farm Bill.

They argued that thinning small trees works for moderate fires but does little during extreme fire events, which will become more prevalent with climate change. They insisted that more effort should be put into making better fire-adapted communities, the second part of the Cohesive Strategy.

“The recent increase in wildfire acres burning is due to a complex interplay involving human-caused climate change coupled with expansion of homes and roads into fire-adapted ecosystems and decades of industrial-scale logging practices. Policies should be examined that discourage continued residential growth in ecosystems that evolved with fire,” the letter said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

Look for these stories in the days ahead and follow any hyperlinks to stories you may have missed:

Monday: City and county leaders in Missoula firmly believe in the science behind climate change but admit there are financial restrictions on what can be done to address it. What are they doing now? What’s planned?

Tuesday: Although cities like Missoula are doing what they can to fight climate change, it’s not enough to keep the climate from warming past a critical point. That requires a massive worldwide effort, according to two University of Montana teachers.

Wednesday: Montana state employees can be hesitant to mention climate change in a state where some still brand it a liberal myth. But the Fire and Aviation Bureau at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is now planning for climate change.

Thursday: Does the University of Montana’s new president believe in climate change? Many of the students on campus do, and they’re busy doing what they can to make small changes as they consider one of the biggest threats to their generation.

Focus on climate change: Missoula leaders back the science, push for change