For over a century, Montana has figured at the center of American wildfire policy. Climate change is again making it ground zero.

By Todd Wilkinson

“Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12:56

From Lone Mountain’s towering ivory zenith, all would seem right with the world. It’s late winter 2015 and a fresh dump of powder has padded the snowpack on Montana’s best-known skiing icon, pushing total accumulation for the season to around 20 feet, half the snow Big Sky Resort received in the 2013-2014 season. Off in the distance, I see tiny plumes of smoke puffing out of chimneys on rooftops tucked snugly into evergreen groves.

As I kick into descent, I’m not thinking of what meteorologists are forecasting in their crystal balls for the dog days of summer. Writing about the American West for nearly 30 years, I’ve never forgotten the old agrarian adage: Only fools predict the weather.

Still, the harbingers this year are hard to ignore. California is tinder dry, gripped by its worst drought in 1,200 years. The Golden State’s science-informed governor, Jerry Brown, is calling lower precipitation “the new normal.” Across the Colorado River plateau, lakes Mead and Powell have dropped to their lowest levels since the reservoirs were first created to store water for tens of millions. In the northern Rockies, snow in the high country was fractionally below “average,” while balmy temperatures in the valleys made this past winter one of the mildest in recollection.

My backyard in Bozeman, where in years past I could reliably freeze an outdoor hockey rink for the kids, held bare grass in February. And some stretches of Yellowstone National Park’s roads this spring were plowed and made accessible to motorists earlier than any year since 1988, when wildfire scorched 1,250 square miles of the park.

As of late May, many public land managers believe the West may be in for another epic, budget-busting year of battling wildfire, with federal hotshots, smokejumpers and Pulaski-toting Type 2 handcrews being deployed to halt nearly unstoppable flare-ups. Very likely, as you are now reading these words, woodsmoke might be drifting into view.

Montana has her own place within the lore of modern firefighting. The state’s western-forested mountains served as a main front for the “Great Fire of 1910.” Over a span of just two days in late August

A Mormon Lake Hotshot keeps his head up during night shift in the Gila Wilderness. Whitewater-Baldy Complex, New Mexico, 2012.  PHOTO BY KARI GREER

A Mormon Lake Hotshot keeps his head up during night shift in the Gila Wilderness. Whitewater-Baldy Complex, New Mexico, 2012. PHOTO BY KARI GREER

of that year, about 3 million acres were blackened, earning the “Big Blowup” distinction as the largest forest fire in U.S. history. A handful of small Montana towns were completely destroyed in a hydra-headed blaze that touched 10 national forests in three states.

Montana’s mystique is also immortalized in literature. Second only to A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s next best book is Young Men and Fire, his nonfictional exploration of the tragic Mann Gulch Fire near Helena. The 1949 inferno claimed the lives of 13 smokejumpers and served as a catalyst for research into wildfire behavior.

Today, Montana remains a hub for firefighting and training. Missoula is home base for a legion of smokejumpers and to Neptune Aviation, a private company that has provided a squadron of fire-attack aircraft enlisted by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, responsible for thousands of sorties. On top of it, some of the nation’s crackerjack Native American fire teams deployed west-wide hail from the Treasure State.

No matter where one lives in the West – especially if you dwell in what’s called the forested “wildland-urban interface” – the looming threat of wildfire is never far away.

I’m reflecting on wisdom imparted to me 27 summers ago by Dr. Don Despain. In 1988, the Yellowstone National Park botanist watched nearly 800,000 acres – more than a third – of America’s first national park burn in a historic outbreak of wildfire. That was the same year the first-ever public hearing on climate change was held on Capitol Hill, featuring warnings from a mid-career NASA climatologist named James Hansen.

Half my life ago, Despain shared these pearls: You can never gauge the probable severity of a fire season solely by gauging mountain snowpack in March because weather patterns can change, he said.

Second, while it’s inordinately difficult to forecast the weather, it’s actually easier to project the trajectory of climate since it involves an accumulation of objectively traceable trend lines, Despain said. Experts note today that six of the hottest years on record worldwide have happened in the last decade. A recent issue of the journal Yellowstone Science confirms that the Yellowstone interior has been drying out, having potentially radical implications for wildlife and even geothermal features that function like clockwork, based on natural availability of precipitation.

Third, parts of the West are always going to burn, Despain noted, because the very environment we love has been forged by fire for eons.

When Despain and I visited again this April, the retired scientist offered an addendum to point number three: The West is indeed going to burn, but it is going to burn bigger and more often due to climate change. What’s left in its wake may not be the kinds of ecosystems we and our ancestors are accustomed to interacting with.

“We need to adapt because our previous approaches to suppressing major conflagrations, declaring war on them, and trying to pay for them have been both an exercise in futility and we know it’s economically unsustainable,” he said.

The U.S. government isn’t far off from Despain’s observations, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“Climate change, drought, fuel buildup and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America’s forests,” Vilsack declared in a 2014 report that noted the Forest Service’s ability to function was being crippled by the costs of fighting wildfire.

“In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combating fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the USFS budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies.” It’s a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario, though Uncle Sam, Vilsack noted, has got a hole burning in his pocket.

Consider these facts: Today, firefighting costs and prevention have soared past $2 billion annually and engulf almost half of the Forest Service’s total budget. Add in firefighting costs on BLM holdings and it rises well past $3 billion.

The number of wildfires has doubled on public lands since 1980, and those fires ever increasingly are threatening the same watersheds that deliver the aqua flowing to 20 million taps and yielding clean rivers.

According to the USFS, fire season lengths have increased between 60 and 80 days over the last three decades. While the agency claims that 230 million acres of public lands in the West are in need of fuel reduction, at most 3 million acres a year are receiving treatments, meaning the backlog only grows. Plus, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack noted in 2014 that about a half-billion dollars’ worth of Forest Service fire-prevention projects were put on hold and spent instead fighting fires.

“You don’t need to be a genius to do the math,” says Ray Rasker, co-founder of Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics, which has become an important national player in trying to address this vexing conundrum.

Last year, Headwaters published a report whose primary author was Dr. Ross Gorte, a retired senior policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service, renowned for its fact-finding advisory role to Congress.

“Wildfire threat and protection costs are likely to rise because of climate change and continued home development. headwaters_graphCurrently, the majority of private wildlands are undeveloped; only about 16 percent of the wildland-urban interface in the West is now developed, and the remaining 84 percent is available for development,” Gorte wrote. If just half of the wildland-urban interface is developed in the future, the $2.2 billion annual firefighting costs could more than double. By comparison, the Forest Service’s total average annual budget is $5.5 billion.

Another Headwaters’ report found that, statewide in Montana, protecting homes from wildfires costs an average of $28 million annually. If development near fire-prone forests continues, costs to protect homes likely will rise to $40 million by 2025. Just a 1-degree F increase in summer temperatures would at least double home-protection costs. Additional development and hotter summers combined could increase the annual cost to exceed $80 million by 2025, and that doesn’t include the likely hundreds of millions to safeguard watersheds important to drinking water and to forest rehabilitation – costs currently underwritten by the federal government.

The firefighting question figures prominently at the heart of a controversial issue. Gorte’s examination throws cold water on assertions from conservative lawmakers in state legislatures and Congress that federal lands should be turned over to states for “better management.” Not only is it currently illegal to transfer federal lands, but the costs and liabilities of having states take over firefighting costs could obliterate their budgets.

That assessment is corroborated by another recent report, “The Wildfire Burden: Why Public Land Seizure Proposal Would Cost States Billions of Dollars,” prepared by the Denver-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana has called for more intensive logging which he and others claim will prevent wildfires from erupting, a contention disputed by Yellowstone’s former fire guru, Despain.

When ecologist George Wuerthner with the Foundation for Deep Ecology edited the coffee table-sized book Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, he cited numerous scientific studies showing that the “logging-one’s-way-out-of-fire-danger” mentality was misguided.

The Smokey the Bear era that dominated the 20th century brought decades of wildfire suppression while, ironically, setting the stage for even bigger fires and leading to the arrogant attitude that development could occur anywhere.

“We are used to doing things as we please and being left alone,” said University of Montana economist Thomas Power. “The federal and state governments pick up the tab. Some of us even demand that the entire forested landscape be fireproofed – as plausible a concept as stopping a hurricane or earthquake, at a cost of billions of taxpayers’ dollars and untold environmental costs.”

Every journalist I know who was covering the Yellowstone fires of 1988, has scenes seared in our brains.

Fire explodes near the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park in early September during the 1988 wildfires. PHOTO BY MIKE COIL

Fire explodes near the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park in early September during the 1988 wildfires. PHOTO BY MIKE COIL

Vivid in my memory are the mushroom clouds that erupted like atomic blasts with each major blowup.

Nothing will ever compare to the surreal vision of Sept. 7, 1988, when the North Fork Fire made a dead-aimed run at the development complex encircling Old Faithful Geyser.

Meteorologists predicted that the breeze would pick up briskly the following day. The forecast prompted Park Service officials to evacuate thousands of visitors and concession employees. Staying behind was a corps of firefighters, park staff, and maybe two-dozen journalists.

Indeed, the zephyrs picked up, attaining gale force and driving the inferno straight toward the historic Old Faithful Inn in a deafening roar. Scurrying for safety, we huddled around the treeless apron of Old Faithful Geyser as blackness engulfed us, firebrands racing horizontally overhead. Some firefighters believed the inn would be lost. At the last minute, the wind changed direction only a few degrees and miraculously the building survived.

No major irreplaceable structure was lost in Yellowstone that entire summer, a testament to the fact that thousands of firefighters and most of the then-record $120 million was spent on protecting people and buildings.

Despain notes that it’s a huge waste of money to continually attack a fire that is rolling across wild country. No matter how much retardant expensive slurry bombers drop, no matter how many fire lines are cut by bulldozers, and, poignantly, no matter how many trees are felled in the name of reducing fuel loads, fires are going to start and race as long as conditions are dry.

The decision before us is where we build. “We’re not going to stop fire but we can anticipate, just as we do with rising water in flood plains, where they’re going to be,” Headwaters’ Rasker says.

Where does personal responsibility begin and end? Let’s be clear, no one who owns an abode in the woods wants to be lectured about fire risk any more than the folks who build dream homes along rivers want to be chided about floods. But should risky decisions be supported with federally subsidized firefighting and federally subsidized flood insurance?

Rasker argues that the more America denies it has a serious problem, the deeper a hole it is digging. He believes strongly that federal and state land managers having to answer to an increasingly frugal public see the writing on the wall.

Thoughtful investments in smarter planning now will deliver exponential dividends in the years to come, he says. Rasker’s evangelizing earned him an audience in 2014 with top officials in the U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments in Washington, D.C., including a meeting with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and wildfire and budget strategists.

“At first, thinking like an economist, I thought the solution was simply to bill county and city governments for their share of the subsidized federal firefighting bill,” Rasker says, admitting that his own opinion has shifted. “I thought that would correct the moral hazard of allowing any development to occur in dangerous places while the rest of us pay the bill and young men and women risk their lives. I thought this would create a powerful incentive for better land-use planning.”

But given the deep partisan divide that exists in Congress, that kind of approach, albeit a paragon of fiscal responsibility, was still a non-starter.

So Rasker went again to Washington in April 2015 and offered a carrot. Of the Forest Service’s $2.2 billion annual firefighting budget, he proposed devoting just 1 percent of it – $22 million per year – to create a land-use planning assistance grant program that communities can apply for. These communities would be eligible for $200,000 to hire land-use planning consultants who specialize in fire-risk reduction, and specialists who can do fine-scale risk mapping just as flood zones are mapped.

“We need to create a series of incentives and regulations that force future developments to consider and prepare for the reality of wildfire being accelerated by climate change,” Rasker says.

The Wyoming High Desert Helitack crew hikes out after a burn operation on the Norton Point Fire. Shoshone National Forest north of Dubois, Wyoming, 2011. PHOTO BY KARI GREER

The Wyoming High Desert Helitack crew hikes out after a burn operation on the Norton Point Fire. Shoshone National Forest north of Dubois, Wyoming, 2011. PHOTO BY KARI GREER

“It doesn’t mean we don’t develop. It means we develop smarter.”

Already, a pilot project in the downhill ski industry province of Summit County, Colorado, is showing how the program can work and Rasker fully expects that it can be applied more widely across the West and forested Montana. The Forest Service is now looking to expand the project to five more Western communities.

As Yellowstone National Park burned in 1988, its fires were defeated only by snow and not human combat. Still, members of Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation invoked their own incendiary rhetoric. One elected official demanded that Despain and Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee be fired for “allowing the park to burn.” Another characterized the national park as a charred moonscape that would never recover. They were wrong.

Today, every study affirms that Yellowstone is none the worse for wear. Not long after that distant summer, John Varley, the now-retired Yellowstone research chief, offered a poignant observation.

Mother Nature never does anything that results in her own destruction, Varley said. What people do to the environment, jeopardizing their own life-support system by exacerbating climate change, however, is another matter. We ignore it at our peril and when the heat gets turned up we’ll pay the price.

CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

Todd Wilkinson has been a nationally renowned journalist for 30 years. He recently penned the critically acclaimed book, Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet. His forthcoming Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone, features 150 images of grizzlies by Jackson, Wyoming-based photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen. Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana.

This story was first published in the summer 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.