The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost

This piece, “The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost” from Megan Molteni in Wired is certainly worth a read.

While the news media in Montana seems entirely intent on just letting Montana’s politicians – especially from the GOP – engaged in childish name calling like calling Montana citizens who are environmentalists ‘extremists’ ‘fringe’ or ‘radicals’ (thereby inciting hatred, and maybe even potential violence against environmentalists in Montana)….

Numerous national media outlets (here and here, for example) seem to have no problem picking up the phone and contacting actual, real-life Montana scientists and researchers who actually do things like study wildfires. Crazy, right?

This part of the Wired article caught my eye (emphasis added):

Here’s the straightforward logic of Zinke’s scapegoating: Environmentalists block the Forest Service from lowering the fuel load on the land, land catches on fire, and now it’s harder to put out. Thanks, tree-huggers.

But fire scientists say it’s more complicated than that. Many question the ecological (and economic) value of thinning forests out, for three big reasons. One, the evidence for its efficacy is both scant and at times contradictory. Two, probabilistic risk assessments show that the thinning doesn’t really help much because the likelihood of a fire starting close enough to interact with thinned areas is negligibly small. And three, in the worst weather conditions — dry, hot, and most importantly, windy — no amount of thinning or selective logging is going to make much difference.

[Geez, where have we heard these points before… – mk]

A case in point: that Park Creek fire burning outside of Lincoln. It started on a remote slope that wasn’t slated for any prescribed burns or dead tree removals. But such treatments wouldn’t have made much difference anyway, according to Carl Seielstad, a fire ecologist at the National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis at the University of Montana, because the closest road is more than mile away, at the bottom of a slope.

If you know anything about fire behavior, you know it moves much faster uphill. And in this case there wasn’t much in that direction, except more trees. “Without any roads in this area there was nothing for firefighters to anchor to,” says Seielstad, pointing at a 3D rendering of the fire’s path he’s pulled up on his computer. “It’s fair to say that regardless of treatment, this area would probably have been impossible to contain.”

Well, as careful readers of this blog will recall, Montana’s Republican politicians including Secretary Ryan Zinke, Senator Steve Daines, Rep Greg “Gonna Body Slam Ya” Gianforte and even Sec of Ag Sonny Perdue all pointed to the Park Creek Fire in an effort to blame ‘fringe’ ‘radical’ ‘extremists’ environmentalists for wildfires throughout Montana. And of course the Montana timber industry had to jump on that blame the environmentalists bandwagon too.

Over the past 22 years, as I went from a seasonal wildland firefighter to a year-round forest and public lands activist, I’ve come to realize that one of the first things torched during wildfire season is the truth.

Hopefully more national news outlets continue to reach out to actual scientists and researchers in Montana to get their side of the story. Maybe someday soon more media outlets in Montana will be able to locate the wildfire scientists, researchers and experts literally living right under their noses, or maybe even right next door.

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