Fires and climate: Sen. Daines, it’s time to move on

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By the time you will have a chnace to read this letter, the rains will have have arrived, bringing relief to Western Montana from record-breaking dryness, fires, and smoke.

We all need that break, especially those individuals and families who may have suffered losses during this summer’s fire season.

There’s been talk about “the need for forest management reform,” especially from Sen. Steve Daines. Part of the senator’s pitch is blaming “extreme environmentalists” for the severity of this fire season. While blaming other Montanans may feel good, it’s actually incorrect and unproductive.

If we as a society are going to address the risk of fire to our homes and communities, we need to focus on the facts. Montana’s largest fire, the Lodgepole Complex Fire, burned over 270,723 acres of mostly grassland in Eastern Montana, and large wildfires raged in British Columbia with no pesky federal laws standing in the way of “management.” Leadership requires real solutions not scapegoating.

University of Montana forest scientist Andrew Larson said recently, “climate and weather drive fire.” Sen. Daines has said nothing about how climate may have contributed to this year’s fire season. However, most people know what they have seen: an extremely hot, dry and long summer that is at least in part due to climate change. It’s that obvious.

A forester from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation told me recently that forest fuels are drier than ever. Large fuels (downed trees) may have 10 percent moisture content. Smaller fuels (twigs and branches) may be at 4 percent. That’s really dry.

Over the last 10-15 years, Montana’s national forests have authorized numerous timber sales in the Wildland Urban Interface. Millions of board feet of timber have flowed to Montana mills as a result of these sales that have simultaneously reduced fire risk to private property lying next to public forests.

In addition, the 2014 Farm Bill provided new authority for the Forest Service and Montana to work together to identify priority treatment areas of our national forests.

In addition, localized and specific forest thinning can help protect private homes or structures. The North Fork Landowners Association has promoted a very successful “Fire Wise” program that has helped North Fork Flathead landowners reduce the risk to their property. Their progress serves as a model for other communities and neighborhoods.

But no amount of timber cutting or lawsuits would have stopped this year’s fires, driven by extreme dryness, wind and other local factors.

Let there be no doubt, we have a long-term fire problem on our hands and it’s driven by climate and weather. Summers will be hotter and longer on average. That’s what climate scientists have been saying and predicting for years. Now we know that those predictions — based on sound science — have been accurate.

Most Montanans get it. The climate is changing. Bigger fires are here to stay. It’s past time to plan for this reality — for our kids’ sake. Blaming others is so yesterday. The people are ahead of the politicians, and it’s time for Montana’s junior senator to move-on too and deal with the reality of climate change.

Dave Hadden, of Bigfork, is director of Headwaters Montana.

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