Wildfires burned more than 1 million acres in Montana this year. The fires took two lives, drove hundreds of people from their homes, and forced us to breathe air wholly unfit for our lungs. They also shut down our summer tourist season halfway through what is usually the most lucrative time of year. Business owners will have a hard time recovering, if they can at all.
But if there’s one silver lining to this year’s horrific fire season, it was the unifying effect the fires had on Montanans. Here in Seeley Lake and Florence, neighbors rallied in support of each other and, for the most part, displayed nothing but gratitude for those risking their lives in protecting ours.
We wish Sen. Steve Daines had taken his cue from us. At a time when Montanans are coming together to address what is arguably the biggest problem we now face as a people, Sen. Daines used the occasion to score cheap political points and spout divisive rhetoric that stood in sharp contrast to the caring and gracious acts of people in the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and other parts of the state.
During the fires, neighbors and businesses opened their doors to families who had been evacuated from their homes and to fatigued firefighters in dire need of a bed. In one case, a Good Samaritan in Missoula offered to load up, haul, and store the possessions of a few Seeley Lake residents until the fire danger passed. In another case, a Blackfoot Valley resort allowed Seeley Lake High School to set up classrooms in its facilities. Thousands of dollars were raised to install air purifiers in schools that needed them.
When faced with threats to our lives and livelihoods, Montanans look past each other’s ideological differences and pull together. When addressing these threats, Sen. Daines instead honed in on differences, blaming “environmental extremists” for the fires in an attempt to advance a partisan, timber-focused agenda that will do nothing to solve the fire problem Montana faces. (Unfortunately, it would appear that Congressman Greg Gianforte is following suit.)
No matter how you slice it, you cannot blame this horrendous fire season on anything but the unprecedented drought Montana experienced this summer — drought that scientists warned us years ago would happen as a result of climate change. Anything we can do here in Montana, including more logging, will be spitting in the wind unless Sen. Daines and other politicians in D.C. first accept that climate change is real and take steps to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions.
Sen. Daines could also begin lending no-strings-attached support to the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which makes how we fund fire fighting similar to how we fund our response to other natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes. Under this bill, our firefighters would have the funds they need to protect our lives and property, rather than having to borrow from non-firefighting programs.
In 2015 Sen. Daines sabotaged this bill by tying it to another, strictly partisan bill that focused entirely on timber harvest and left forest restoration and conservation out of the picture. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act died in Congress as a result. If Sen. Daines attempts anything similar in this Congress, he should be held accountable for working against firefighters and against the safety of our communities.
If Sen. Daines wants to do something meaningful for addressing wildfires in his state, it’s time he put an end to his partisan gamesmanship, stop pointing fingers and start following the lead of Montanans, who are working together from the middle for the good of all.
Clint and Sally Carlson live in Florence. Gene Schade lives in Seeley Lake.