I recently returned from a ten-day fishing/exploring trip to Montana, a state I once lived in and know well. Four days into the adventure, heavy smoke moved in from the west, drowning the valleys in brownish-yellow haze and obscuring the peaks. Conjecture was that it was from fires in California, Oregon, and/or Washington. There were also several fires in Montana that added to the smoke in certain areas.
Like many of you, I grew up in the fifties and sixties with Smokey the Bear and his audacious claim that “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Given the obvious fact that most forest fires are ignited by lightning, I think we need to reflect on the “Only You” part of the slogan, meaning of course, us, we humans, in a deeper sense. Is it true? What does this mean?
Forest fires have increased dramatically in the American West over the past twenty years. When I came out to Missoula, Montana, for college, I remember a few dramatic fires, but very few. These were classically unique events. Nowadays, they are so commonplace that only the largest, the most devastating grab our attention. Why are they now so common, and so widespread over the western states?
There are two primary reasons for our current forest fire situation, and another secondary reason for the increased destruction of human habitation. The first is a buildup of fuel in the western forests, ironically a direct result of the fire suppression that Smoky caused. Western forests burned with great regularity before manifest destiny, and some species, such as Lodgepole pine, were dependent on fires for regeneration. Many forest experts claim there is now more fuel (dead branches, trees, duff) than any time in the past 200 years.
The second primary reason is global warming/climate change. In addition to drying out forests and fuel with unprecedented temperatures and droughts, GW has allowed the proliferation of various forest insects, such as the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae).
These beetles were a natural ingredient in western forest ecosystems for thousands of years, providing a beneficial role by attacking weak and diseased trees. However, extremely hot dry summers, along with mild winters, have created a panacea for the beetles, and they now attack healthy trees, killing them. Driving Montana, you can see hardly a lodgepole pine forest that is not riddled with dead pines, the result of beetle kills. In British Columbia the damage is so extreme that dead forests are visible using Google Earth.
And finally, to add to the mix, humans have moved into rural areas and forests at an unprecedented rate. In Montana, the number of houses, many of them in the mega-mansion category, constructed in “fire zones” has grown exponentially in the past thirty years. And this phenomenon is not unique to Montana. While a “home in the forest” has an allure, it also has potentially dire consequences.
My yearly trips to Montana are a valuable experience for me, one where I “unplug” from the online world and media, and enjoy a simple life of tent-camping, hiking, and fishing. But it has also come to mean dealing with fires and smoke. And I am afraid the situation will continue to grow worse.
Paul S. Piper was born in Chicago, 1951. He lived in Chicago through 12 years of Catholic schooling until fleeing to Montana for college and outdoor adventure. He received a BS in Wildlife Biology and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. He subsequently lived in Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii, pursuing careers as diverse as biologist, landscaper, fly fishing guide, teacher, writer, web designer, and finally librarian. His first novel with BVC, The Wolves of Mirr, will be published in the near future.