On a late-June bikepacking trip from Superior, Montana, to Hailey, Idaho, fire ecologist Philip Higuera studied wildfire’s impact on the landscape, as is his habit when he’s in the woods. He started his trip in a rugged and thickly forested area along the Montana-Idaho border that burned in 1910 and continued south through fire scars new and old before arriving in an open, high-elevation area studded with sagebrush 630 miles later.

Along the way, Higuera noted the abundance of standing dead trees that burned in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 2012, but he also observed the emergence of lodgepole pine seedlings, which require the intense heat of a high-severity fire to regenerate, and below them a vibrant growth of blue-violet lupine, magenta fireweed and yellow glacier lilies. Where some might see a wasteland of blackened trees in varying states of decomposition, Higuera saw a landscape that has been, in the words of his bikepacking partner, “refreshed by fire.”

Higuera, who teaches fire ecology and paleoecology at the University of Montana, keeps tabs on how the public characterizes and discusses wildfire in the American West. He said land managers and the general population both are making strides toward appreciating fire’s role in healthy forest ecosystems. 

But concerns generated by COVID-19 could reverse some of that progress as fire managers in the Northern Rockies prepare for a wildfire response that skews heavily toward suppression. This year, the agency’s goal is to catch and contain fires when they’re small so they won’t need to bring firefighters and support personnel from across the United States into fire camps of hundreds or even thousands of people. That could protect firefighters from COVID-19 infection and minimize the likelihood that they’ll introduce the virus to nearby communities, but it also has downstream consequences for the health and resilience of fire-adapted ecosystems.

SUPPRESS OR BURN?

For more than 20 years, the exclusion of fire has been recognized as a “destabilizing influence” for ponderosa pine, pinyon-juniper woodland and tallgrass prairie ecosystems, among others. Policy is starting to come around to reflect the findings of scientists like Higuera, but he said he is wary that COVID-19 will drive a “knee-jerk reaction of putting out everything quickly.” He said he’s hoping that public and federal agencies instead use this unusual season as an opportunity to rethink the long-term implications of that approach.

“Jumping on every fire and trying to put it out as soon as possible is really reverting to mid-20th century strategies, which we know in the long-term don’t work,” Higuera said, referencing now-abandoned strategies like the so-called 10 a.m. policy that directed fire managers to put out all fires by 10 a.m. the day after their detection. “It puts off this debt [of unburned fuels] into the future, and that approach doesn’t work well under extreme fire conditions.”

In a 2019 paper published in Nature Sustainability, Higuera and others make a case for “social-ecological resilience” to wildfire and a broader acceptance of its presence. 

“We intend to jump on fires as fast and furiously as we can. We have 175 of our permanent firefighters and an additional 215 support personnel all ready to roll. It’s highly likely we’ll use all of them in this fire season.”

BLM Montana-Dakotas State Director John Mehlhoff

“Ultimately, decades of fire science strongly indicate that fuel management, prescribed fires and allowing wildfires to burn under moderate fire weather conditions will protect and promote ecological and cultural resources, and communities, far more effectively and efficiently than trying to eliminate fire from landscapes,” the authors argue.

In practice, that approach necessitates a difficult balancing act. Higuera said he doesn’t envy fire managers’ position this year as they navigate an already dynamic situation that’s been further complicated by COVID-19. In addition to raising the stakes for firefighter and community health, COVID-19 has turned 2020 into a year where “uncertainty is everywhere,” according to Kit O’Connor, a research ecologist with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Higuera said he’s concerned that an emphasis on heavy suppression will continue into future seasons.

“The incentive and the reward is typically on being very conservative and saying, ‘we’ll just put it out,’” he said. “This year, that tendency is going to be even [stronger] if August and September are indeed above average warmth [with] low precipitation.”

‘AGGRESSIVE INITIAL ATTACK’

In its most recent forecast, the National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services Bureau called for above-average significant fire potential across most of Montana during August and September, meaning fires are expected to grow larger and be harder to contain than in an average year. All 10 of the state’s national forests are colored red in the outlook, indicating potential for increased fire activity. This is shaping up to be a year when Montana’s fire season starts slowly but gathers momentum as temperatures rise and rainfall dwindles.

Fire ecologists like Higuera are paying close attention to the approach that the U.S. Forest Service, Montana’s largest federal land manager, takes to wildfire this year. The agency has indicated it will be taking a particularly conservative approach on the 193 million acres it manages across the U.S., including 19 million acres in Montana, by erring on the side of keeping all fires small.

Fire ecologist Philip Higuera (left) in the fire scar of the Lolo Peak Fire that burned near Missoula in 2017. Credit: Sarah Sunu

“We don’t have an official policy on it, [but] because of COVID concerns, we’re going to use aggressive initial attack in all those cases that we can,” said Ralph Rau, who heads up the fire, aviation and air program for the Forest Service’s Northern Rockies region.

To achieve that objective, the Forest Service has added approximately 100 firefighters and six additional helicopters to its roster in Region One, which includes all of Montana and North Dakota and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota. If the season shapes up the way meteorologists expect it to, those firefighters and helicopters won’t be sitting idle.

In addition to the wildfires that are aggressively suppressed in a normal year — namely, those that threaten communities and critical infrastructure — wildfires located deep in the backcountry, and even those in wilderness areas, will be considered for full suppression this year, Rau said. 

In previous years, lightning-ignited backcountry fires, like those that burned remote stretches of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Higuera traversed, might have been monitored and allowed to burn within certain parameters. Such fires would be shepherded around a landscape, consuming accumulated fuels, making way for new growth and contributing to the ecosystem’s resilience. But that likely won’t be the case this year.

Rau said backcountry and wilderness fires will be evaluated for response on an “individual, fire-by-fire basis,” and reiterated that this year’s focus will be on aggressive initial attack. He added that fire managers’ calculations will shift as the season progresses and the availability of firefighting resources fluctuates. Fires burning deep in the backcountry will generally take lower priority than those burning closer to population centers if widespread fires necessitate a triage-type approach, he said. 

For fires that do become large, fire camps will look different this year, he added. Many support functions will be handled remotely and, due to COVID-19, smaller, decentralized camps will replace the densely populated tent cities that are common in normal years.

DIFFERENT AGENCIES, CONVERGING STRATEGIES

The Bureau of Land Management will take a similar tack as the Forest Service on the nearly 8 million acres it manages in Montana. 

“We intend to jump on fires as fast and furiously as we can,” said BLM’s Montana-Dakotas State Director John Mehlhoff at Gov. Steve Bullock’s annual wildfire season briefing on June 16. “We have 175 of our permanent firefighters and an additional 215 support personnel all ready to roll. It’s highly likely we’ll use all of them in this fire season.”

Wildfires occurring on private or state-owned land are generally under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Its goal is almost always to snuff out fires completely; the DNRC’s objectives are oriented around the protection of life, property and natural resources, such as state trust land that’s harvested for lumber. In that regard, the DNRC’s approach will be similar to years past. 

Magenta Fireweed emerges in the understory of a burned area in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in summer 2016. Credit: Philip Higuera

“Aggressive initial attack, for us, is not a shift,” said Mike DeGrosky, who heads up the agency’s Fire Protection Bureau. “This year I think we’re just redoubling what is our normal effort.”

The National Park Service has historically been more willing to let fire play its part in forest ecosystems. Lightning-sparked fires in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are often monitored and allowed to burn — within certain geographic and weather parameters — so long as they pose minimal risk to humans and park infrastructure. Higuera said that’s in part because the Park Service manages for a different set of goals than other agencies. Restoring and maintaining ecological health is one of the stated objectives of the National Park Service’s fire program, and the parks rarely run timber sales, as the Forest Service commonly does.

But the National Park Service also appears to be leaning toward a more conservative approach this year. 

“Fire managers will assess each new start, evaluate all the factors, and will make the best available decision,” NPS Fire Communication and Education Specialist Naaman Horn wrote in an email to Montana Free Press. “Obviously, COVID-19 is a new factor this year that will play a very important role in our decision-making process. Our goal is to best limit firefighter exposure to COVID-19 without interruption to managing wildfires safely and effectively. In many cases that will result in aggressive initial attack suppression efforts, but not always.” (Glacier and Yellowstone national parks didn’t respond to requests for more specific details about their fire season plans by press time.)

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE

Regardless of where a fire starts, the smoke it produces adheres to no jurisdictional boundaries. (In fact, much of the smoke that thickens the air and aggravates Montanans’ lungs in the summer and fall comes from out-of-state fires as far away as the Four Corners region of the Southwest, according to Northern Rockies Coordination Center meteorologist Michael Richmond, who added that he has “high confidence” that western Montana will have more wildfire smoke to contend with this summer than in the past two.)

Smoke impacts will give public health officials additional cause for concern in 2020, and maybe even into 2021. Available studies suggest that fine particulates like those in wildfire smoke could make people more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and to grave outcomes — even death — if they contract the disease, according to reporting by Montana Public Radio.

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Higuera said he’s curious to see if Montana communities will be “less flat-footed” in responding to smoke impacts than they’ve been in previous years. It might be impossible to control the flow of smoke, but Montanans can prepare for it. Public information campaigns and investment in and distribution of air filtration systems, for example, can help protect vulnerable populations from the worst impacts. Climate Smart Missoula has compiled resources at montanawildfiresmoke.org, including tutorials on constructing an affordable DIY air filter out of an electrostatic filter and a box fan.

NO GUARANTEES

Preparation is important, but even with the best intentions and carefully constructed plans, there’s an element of randomness and unpredictability in any fire season. For example: 40% of the state’s wildfires are sparked by lightning. For another: as late as June of that year, 2017 was forecast to be an average or below average fire season in Montana — and then a flash drought turned it into a record-breaking year for money spent and acres burned. Much could change between now and the apex of Montana’s 2020 fire season.

This year, fire managers in the Northern Rockies might be successful at snuffing out all fires while they’re small. Or it could go the other way: health risks posed to firefighters and intense fire activity across the region could lead the Forest Service and other agencies to allow more backcountry fires to burn. 

For his part, Higuera said he’s hoping the strange mix of circumstances introduced by COVID-19 might help the public gain a broader acceptance of wildfire.

“It could be a good teachable moment where we see that letting some fires burn in more remote wilderness areas isn’t catastrophic and costs less money overall,” he said. “[There’s] an opportunity to potentially move forward in terms of managing fire in a more sustainable way.”

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This story is part of continuing Montana Free Press coverage of community responses to COVID-19 supported by the Solutions Journalism Network

Billings native Amand Eggert is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. She’s currently a freelance writer covering the environment, the impact of public policy, and what it means to live in the Mountain West in the 21st century. Contact Amanda at eggert.amanda@gmail.com.