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Study Suggests Rethinking How The West Lives With Fire

July Fire as seen from the air in July 2017

As fire season winds down, managers are intentionally setting fire to brush piles, slash and even large sections of forests in an effort to prevent out of control wildfires in future seasons. A group of scientists from Montana and Idaho recently published a paper arguing that strategies like these should be part of a radical rethinking of how people in the West live with fire.

Dave McWethy says Montana has passed a tipping point. Summers are hotter and drier, which means fire season lasts longer. Our approach to put every single fire out, like we’ve done for the past 100 years, just isn’t realistic anymore.

"The big take home message is that we can't respond the way we have in the past to wildfire," McWethy said.

McWethy is an assistant professor of earth sciences at Montana State University. In a recent article  in Nature Sustainability, McWethy and his coauthors argue that people living in the West need to reconsider how we live with, and even harness, fire if we want to continue living here in the future.

"We have to make changes. And one of the great things we have to do that, is how we used to use fire as a tool in the past," McWethy said.

McWethy’s team found a model in the Netherlands, where instead of fighting rising sea levels with taller and taller dams, engineers built an infrastructure system designed to work with water instead of fight it.

"And instead of rebuilding in the same way that they have in the past, they’ve decided to transform how they accept or live with these hazards… It’s coming back to this idea that fire is part of Western landscapes, it was in the past it is today and it’s going to be in the future. And I think becoming comfortable with the fact that with warming temps and a longer fire season, the best way we can move into the future is accept fire as a natural process, and start to think about how we could use fire itself to safeguard our communities," McWethy said.

Nicky Ouellet: Where would it make more sense for humans to take an active or proactive approach to preparing for or living with fire?

Dave McWethy: Almost everywhere in Montana where people are living, it's a great place to think about adaptive resilience. That really just means we’re making changes to protect communities and people where there’s anything that’s flammable, any flammable vegetation... We can look at building materials that are less flammable. Even if we’re in homes that have already been built we can look at the home ignition zone, and that’s just creating defensible space when there are fires that occur and the easiest way to do that is to remove woody fuels from around the home.

NO: You and your co-authors also suggest some pretty radical rethinking of how we design our communities. You’ve suggested that maybe parking lots or playgrounds could act as vegetationless safe spaces. Designing neighborhoods and communities so there are roads going in and out so people don't become trapped. You also suggest that we could consider building underground or physical barriers to protect homes. How did you come up with these ideas and what are you envisioning as a fire adapted community?

DM: We need to start thinking about where we have repeated, very severe fires under very extreme conditions. Are these the places we want to rebuild as we have in the past?... And there’s places that we want to start thinking about that even in Montana where there’s a lot of fuel and there’s people living right in the fuels in these dense forests. That’s something we should be thinking about. We’re not saying that every community should be using the same approach. That’s one of the lessons we’ve learned from looking at communities that have achieved some success in protecting themselves from fires. They’ve all used a unique suite of approaches.

NO: You argue that maybe we should be taking it even a step beyond that homeowner responsibility, having a profound shift in the way humans relate to fire. You call it “bouncing forward.” Can you describe what that might look like or where it could be applied effectively?

DM: I think we can learn from folks in eastern Montana and the tribes who have really recognized that fire is a tool that can really help protect communities. It’s useful for a number of reasons and have been using fire for centuries to manage fuels and make landscapes safer for people to live and also promote wellbeing in terms of preparing land for agriculture and ranching. Tribal lands, folks use fire to promote certain types of vegetation that are desirable and culturally important. And I think we can learn from that.

NO: Are there places in Montana where it would make sense to bring things back to the way they were before a fire came through?

DM: Yes, in more remote areas, for example in parts of Glacier National Park, in parts of Yellowstone National Park, other high elevation forests. If a fire comes through it might make sense to let a forest regenerate however it regenerates.

NO: There’s a chance, with temperatures continuing to rise and drought becoming more prevalent, there’s a chance that if we do use fire to fight fire and do these prescribed burns as you’re suggesting, that landscapes are not going to look how they’ve looked in the past. How should people be thinking about that as we move into a drier, hotter future?

DM: Previous research from folks all over the West is showing that in some settings, because of the changing conditions after wildfires, we’re not seeing forests regenerate and we’re seeing these ecosystems transition to scrub or grassland type ecosystems. One of the best ways we can deal with that is just to accept that. Accept those transitions. And in some cases we might want to be more proactive where there's an important ecosystem or vegetation type we want to try to maintain. But we need to think about where that might be successful. In most cases, the best approach would be to just accept these transitions as they occur and really understand these types of changes have occurred over the last several thousand years as conditions warmed or cooled with normal climate variability.

NO: Why aren’t more communities taking that transformative approach? What’s so challenging about it?

DM: I think one of the reasons we haven’t seen as many changes as we might expect is we’ve had so much success controlling and limiting fires over the last 100 years. We no longer can put out all the fires when we have longer fire seasons and warmer conditions and extreme fire weather. So I think it’s time for us to start thinking about transformation and adaptation. If we do that now we’re going to have a much better chance of living with fire as opposed to experiencing the negative impact of those severe fires.