Gianforte pushes active management strategy amid heightened wildfire threat

More than 4 million acres are especially susceptible

Although Montana saw less fire damage in 2020 than in recent years, fires in other Western states led to unhealthy air conditions in parts of the state. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Montana is set to experience an above-average fire season, with more than 4 million acres of forest land at high risk for wildfires as well as insects and disease, state and federal officials said Wednesday.

Persistent drought across much of Montana has left the state vulnerable to fire, especially east of the continental divide, according to forecasts presented at a 2021 fire season briefing for Gov. Greg Gianforte. In that region of the state, an elevated risk of fire will begin in July, followed by the rest of the state by August.

“All signs point to above-normal fire activity in Montana this summer,” Gianforte, a Republican, said.

Representatives from several state and federal agencies were clear on that front, emphasizing to the governor the potential for an especially warm, arid and fiery summer, an expectation for much of the Northern Rockies region. They pledged to be ready, but also warned that the long season could be taxing and that the state would likely need to share its firefighting force with its neighbors.

Coleen Haskell, a meteorologist with the Missoula-based Northern Rockies Coordinating Council, an interagency fire management group, said Montana is in a better position than other states in the region, but that nonetheless, continuing dry conditions have left the state susceptible to fire.

“The cake is already baked,” she said.

Even the spring and winter fire seasons were more active than usual, with more than 630 fires burning 32,000 acres so far this year in the state, said Department of Resources and Natural Conservation Acting Fire Protection Bureau Chief John Monzie.

The potential severity of the fire season is despite recent rainstorms and late snow, which failed to penetrate the bottom layers of dry soil, Haskell said.

“Severe weather and heavy rain gives folks the perspective that everything’s OK,” she said. “But what we need are long-duration periods of elevated humidity.”

Culprits, aside from the existing conditions, include a sharp drop in temperatures February that effectively “freeze-dried” the plant matter that fuels wildfire and prevented moisture from reaching the soil. Haskell also said she’s expecting a high-pressure ridge that will keep the area hot and dry to hit later in June.

A similar phenomenon occurred last September, the worst month of the 2020 season, when an especially strong high-pressure ridge settled and then eventually broke, creating a one-two punch of dry heat followed by thunderstorms and lightning — a recipe for fire.

Agency officials said they’d cooperate with each other and follow the governor’s urging to double down on a strategy of active forest management — meaning reducing fuels, mechanical thinning (manually removing trees) and prescribed burns. DNRC Chief Amanda Kaster said the state was aiming to treat 25,000 acres this year, more than double the amount of forest brought into active management the previous year.

“Knowing all of the various benefits — especially protecting communities and reducing wildland fire risks — active management is increasingly important as our conditions continue to degrade,” said Sonya Germann, DNRC’s forestry division administrator. “What we know about from the best available science and the modeling is that reducing the fuel loads can really affect the severity of the fire.”

Active forest management was also a priority of the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture under the presidency of Donald Trump, who signed an executive order in 2019 ramping up logging on government forest land and directing government agencies to clear out millions of acres of fuel in order to stave off fires — though some pointed out at the time that thinning forests won’t stop increasingly frequent extreme weather.

Gianforte on Wednesday pointed to a “forest health crisis,” a term he’s used frequently in reference to his view of the need for active forest management. An example of the philosophy is on display at the Brooklyn Bridge Good Neighbor Authority project outside of Helena, where a Clancy-based lumber company won a state contract for timber in a densely forested management area with dead trees and snags that can impede a wildland fire response.

Germann said the crisis assessment comes from 100 years of a policy of “active wildfire suppression all the time,” creating an overstocked forest that’s ripe for fires in concert with warming winters, drought and insects.

She also explained that more and more people are “moving into the wildland-urban interface,” creating more opportunities for man-made fires and putting more people and infrastructure at risk.

In 25 years, one in eight homes in Montana was built in high-wildfire hazard areas, she said.

The state saw a record fire year in 2017, with 1.4 million acres burned and a price tag that wiped the state fire fund.

Gianforte and Germann both encouraged Montanans to be responsible with fire, noting that humans cause more than 80 percent of wildfires.

“While we can’t control the weather, we can control our actions,” Gianforte said.