Former firefighters on Montana’s devastating fires

By: 
Several Authors that are listed below

This summer’s catastrophic wildfire season and hazardous, persistent smoke pollution has all Montanans talking. The fires took the lives of two young men, destroyed homes and Sperry Lodge, blew a hole in the state budget, discouraged tourism and other businesses and burned more than 1.2 million acres of Big Sky Country. Fire and smoke forced large-scale evacuations and school closures, curtailed outdoor recreation, threatened health, robbed us of our glory days of summer, and was red-flag risky to the chilly end.
As former smokejumpers, we’re no strangers to the threat wildfires pose to human life, property and the state’s economy. While wildfires are an annual occurrence and a natural, even necessary, part of our ecosystems, the scale and ferocity of this year’s fires and associated drought are extraordinary. They challenged the defensibility of our homes and communities. It’s time for our elected leaders to set partisan politics aside and hold objective discussions about forces driving fire seasons and what we’re going to do about it.
Three years ago we penned an Op/Ed highlighting links between our changing climate and increased drought and wildfire. Fourteen of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. Temperatures increased 2-3º since 1950 and are predicted to rise 4.5-6º by midcentury. Summers are predicted to become drier and warmer. Winter snows are melting earlier. Our fire seasons are lasting longer. Forest fires are larger and fire behavior is more extreme.
This summer’s drought is one for the books. Our forests and grasslands became super-combustible and prone to dangerous, fast-moving mega-wildfires that threatened firefighters, public health and communities. Ranchers and farmers of eastern Montana lost an estimated $400 million worth of crops and cattle due to a drought that may be the worst seen in a century. Some of the same people faced devastating wildfires. These are impacts climate scientists have warned about for years, and recent history shows wildfires and droughts are intensifying.
Four years ago the state spent a record $57 million fighting fires; this year we blew past $100 million. This legislative session the state borrowed from the fire budget because they thought the wet winter meant we’d have a manageable fire season. Now we have a budget shortfall, forcing the state to consider drastic cuts to essential public services that will impact the lives of citizens all over the state.
If this intensified level of wildfires and drought is our “new normal,” which climate models and recent experience both indicate, there are things we can do.  
First, address the root causes. Global warming loads the dice in favor of more frequent mega-fires. We can’t control the weather, but it is clear that human activity is causing global warming which in turn is leading to mega-fires and exacerbating fire seasons. We must confront global warming as the long-range solution to the rising temperatures. This means we must demand that our politicians foster science-based policies that better address the realities of climate change.
For example, we know that burning coal is the major driver of rising temperatures, so we must look to alternatives. Montana has everything it needs to be a clean energy leader: some of the most consistent wind in the country, abundant sunlight, and large-scale transmission lines that transport electricity to customers on the West Coast. We must demand that our political leaders focus on this future and assist their citizens in making the transition to clean energy.  
We can take affirmative steps to moderate global warming, right here in Montana. Our firefighters and our communities demand no less.

Harold Hoem, Missoula
Paul Johnson, Clancy
Brad Sauer, Forsyth
Phil Difani, Hamilton
Rod McIver, Kalispell
Mike Oehlerich, Whitefish

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