The 2017 fires: Unmitigated disaster or natural rejuvenator?

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Now that the smoke has cleared and passions have cooled, here’s a scientific perspective on the 2017 fires. Some have wondered whether the fire season was a rare apocalypse, or whether it was simply Nature being Nature. The short answer is, some of both.

Today’s forests clearly are experiencing a highly active fire period, one of many during the past several thousand years. And while many of the fires were natural, some occurred outside the historical range of variation.

Like it or not, fire is the Great Forest Regulator in the West. Nothing controls and rejuvenates forests like large wildfires — not insects, not diseases, not windstorms, not the Forest Service, and not loggers. That’s why researchers have coined such terms as “fire dependent forests” and “disturbance adapted ecosystems.” And, no, fires generally don’t kill Bambi and her friends because native fauna can readily walk, run, burrow, fly, or otherwise escape most wildfires.

Numerous studies during the past four decades provide important perspective about Northern Rockies fire history. In addition to lightning fires, fires often were ignited by Native Americans to improve wildlife habitat and for many other reasons. In the Flathead Basin, tree-ring and fire-scar samples show that fires were widespread during the early- to mid-1700s. Presumably the valleys were often choked with smoke during that time, but lush forests regenerated in the aftermath. Indeed, your favorite old growth stand (if you have one) might well have regenerated during that time and many stands persisted until succumbing to subsequent fires or to logging some two centuries later. Today, less than 10 percent of the region’s old growth forest remains.

Speaking of old growth, most stands burned by the recent Sprague Fire in Glacier Park were between about 300 to 500 years old. So, statistically speaking, it was simply their time to be recycled by the Great Forest Regulator.

Continuing along our timeline, the 1700s active-fire period was followed by generally low fire activity during the cool, moist peak of the Little Ice Age during the early-to-mid 1800s. Then a warming trend between the late 1800s and early 1900s spawned large fires once again, with major fire years in 1889, 1910, 1919, 1929, and 1936. As before, the lush forests that regenerated in the aftermath provided some of the best wildlife habitat in the West.

Subsequently, few fires occurred between about 1940 and 1980. Interestingly, that generally cool-moist period coincided with increasingly effective firefighting technology and know-how within the Forest Service and other land management agencies.

Now comes the modern era. Since about 1980, the Northern Rockies and the West in general have been experiencing another highly active fire period. And there’s really no end in sight, especially considering current climatic trends. So what to do about the so-called fire problem? First, converse to recent statements by politicians and others, forest fires will indeed continue to manage us if we refuse to become a fire-adapted society. Given the vast amount of fire-prone and relatively inaccessible terrain in the West — including in parks and wilderness — logging isn’t likely to save the day. (Especially since many Republicans want to gut federal agencies and increase military spending while simultaneously cutting taxes.)

To me, the smartest strategy would be to concentrate increasingly scarce resources on the most strategic areas. That is, fuel-reduction efforts should focus primarily on the wildland-urban interface and on adjacent low-elevation forests that conceivably could benefit from restoration intervention.

Barrett, of Kalispell, is a fire ecologist. Since 1980, he has studied fire history in many areas of the Northern Rockies, including in Waterton-Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

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