Driest 45 day period on record in some parts of Montana. But, sure, wildfires are caused by “environmental terrorists.”

The National Weather Service in Great Falls, Montana has just posted the following:

“Since July 1, 2018, only 0.01 inches of rainfall has fallen at the Helena Airport. This is the driest period on record from July 1 thru Aug 14th. The map below shows how much of MT has below normal precipitation just in the past 30 days, including in the Helena valley.”

As you can see in the graphic above, many other parts of western Montana have also had the driest 45 day period on record. Missoula has had the 2nd driest 45 day period on record, but that’s only because last year was the driest mid-summer period on record…when all those wildfires burned around Montana due to a “flash drought.”

Anyway, this “driest 45 day period on record” for many parts of western Montana follows a heavy winter snowpack and also record-break springtime flooding in many parts of Montana, including Missoula, the Rocky Mountain Front, Great Falls and Helena areas. In other words, record snowpack and flooding followed immediately by a record dry spell is a pretty good recipe for big wildfires. So we shall see….

So, what’s the solution to a couple of summers of the some of the driest mid-summer periods recorded over the past 130+ years? If and when wildfires burn in the fire-dependent ecosystems of the Northern U.S. Rockies will it be because of “environmental terrorist groups,” as Secretary Ryan Zinke insists?

Most of the forested ecosystem of the Northern U.S. Rockies is comprised of mixed conifer forests, which were born out of, and are maintained, by mixed- to high-severity fire regimes. The notion (spread often by the timber industry and certain politicians) that in the past all the forests of our region experienced frequent, but low-severity, wildfire is just totally not true. In fact, that Dry Montane, open, park-like ponderosa pine forest type makes up a tiny percentage of the forested ecosystem in the Northern Rockies. So, if and when mixed- to high-severity wildfires burn in forests that evolved with mixed- to high-severity wildfires who should be ‘blamed?’ Because we obviously have to blame someone, right?

19 thoughts on “Driest 45 day period on record in some parts of Montana. But, sure, wildfires are caused by “environmental terrorists.””

  1. Rather than ‘preserving’ the extreme viewpoints (because that is what drives donations), why not agree that drought is a problem for most forests, regardless of the source of it? I agree, from direct experience on the Bitterroot, that active management of such forests is problematic. Much more so than the Sierra Nevada, which I have more experience with. If drought, bark beetles and firestorms are the “New Normal”, as the worn-out phrase describes, why not apply that “New Normal” to adjusting forests, where applicable (and less problematic)?

  2. “So, what’s the solution to a couple of summers of the some of the driest mid-summer periods recorded over the past 130+ years?”


    A. Manage these varied forests so they are healthier and more resilient to drought, fire, etc.
    B. Do nothing and hope for the best.

    FWIW, the use of “environmental terrorist groups” by anyone is counterproductive at best.

  3. I was researching the issue of wildfire smoke for a friend with bronchitis in Cody WY and a friend’s husband in Denver with a bad heart who was told to stay inside on Monday in Denver due to smoke. What seems to get left out of this age old argument of forest management versus natural fire is the human health and quality of life considerations. This article from Wired describes those widespread health impacts. https://www.wired.com/story/wildfire-smoke-kills-where-you-dont-expect-it/ And a study in MT documented the long-term impacts of the Seeley fires on those residents. Towns in the West depend on summer tourism and view the summer as the “prize” after our harsh winters. Fires and smoke diminish tourism and Westerner’s quality of life. The number of dead Americans in CA from wildfire should be a concern. Prescribed fire, forest management, Natural fire in the right places should be part of the solution. We need to do better than rehashing old arguments- this is a new era with a different environmental problem. To paraphrase Obama, “The 1980’s are calling to ask for their forestry debates back.”

    • I’m wondering if this is an argument for trying to reduce fires in backcountry areas where the expected fire ecology doesn’t include “thinning,” and where the only threat to people is from their smoke. That thought reminded me of growing up with pollen allergies and noting that a solution for some most affected was to choose to move to where there was less pollen.

    • Thanks for this link, Rebecca. The Miller study is very interesting and also made me think about interactions between another summer pollutant (ozone) and wildfire smoke.

      It would be very interesting to think about what countries, with what fire conditions,have what kind of debates about what to do. Are they all like ours… some of those still from the US in the 80’s in the Pacific Northwest? Where fuels have no commercial value, are the debates simpler or different? Does it seem to depend on public/private ownership or proportion of backcountry to inhabited landscapes? There are probably graduate students out there asking these questions, at least I hope so, and I hope that we can hear from them. What countries are currently doing the best at “living with fire”?

  4. Well said, Matthew.
    Seems to me that nature and evolution have had a few million years to make these forests what they are, and humans have been “managing” them, according to our often mistaken beliefs about what they need, for a couple hundred years. But sure, we know better than nature how to manage them and make them “resilient,” we know what they “should” look like and how often and and at what intensity they should burn, right? We can “fix” them as long as we apply enough fuels reduction and forest thinning to make everything nice and manageable. Wrong.

    All our “management” isn’t going to change the fact that these forests evolved with intermittent mixed- to high-severity fire and when conditions (drought and wind) are right, they are going to burn at mixed to high severity. With record-setting drought, conditions are right for wildfires to burn. We can’t thin our way out of natural fire cycles that have been functioning for thousands of years in Rocky Mountain ecosystems. Severe wildfire may be inconvenient for humans, but it isn’t unnatural and all the money we throw at ecologically destructive “forest management” isn’t going to fix it.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective Alcyon. Also, glad I checked the blog before bed because it appears as if some of the other folks with moderator capabilities on this blog must have missed your comment, and therefore never approved it for publication.

    • It is kind of hard for ‘nature to evolve’ during an ice age, during that time. This seems typical of the “Whatever Happens” crowd, willing to let overstocked and unhealthy forests suffer from neglect and human-caused wildfires, while ignoring the ridiculousness of their claims. In the Sierra Nevada, humans have been managing the forests ever since the glaciers last receded. This is fact, and blows apart this concept of pretending that today’s forests are “just fine” and needs no help against drought, bark beetles and human-caused wildfires. We don’t believe in Fairy Tales, myths and treasured human beliefs.

    • Alcyon, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that “forests” evolve. Species evolve as per the standard definitions of evolution. What exactly do you mean when you say that? Is it as simple as “change over time”? Or something more complex?

  5. These beliefs that these fires are beyond our control and part of the natural order of things will result in death and destructive of our remaining old growth forests. What wasn’t logged will be burnt. Say what you will, but a burnt dead forest is not the same as a green and live one.
    The evidence is right before our eyes and we refuse do anything about it, but continue on as business as usual. I imagine the fire fighting industry will make a fortune this year also.

    • Bob, you beg the question: what evidence do you have that these fires can ever be within our control? Large-scale wildfire has been part of the North American landscape for tens of thousands of years. Wild lands in North American climates are going to experience wild fire, and we humans have to learn to live with, and adapt to, this reality. There is no scientific basis for believing that anything otherwise can ever be the case.

      That does not mean we can do nothing, or should do nothing, in specific spatial and temporal spheres. Defensible space, fuels reduction in urban limits, imposing stricter boundaries on exurban sprawl… But all the Forest Service’s aircraft and all of CAL FIRE’s engines can’t stop the Coast Ranges from burning. And burning again. Fully half of the land area of Lake County, California has burned since 2012 — the majority of it private, non-commercial-timbered land with few to no restrictions on thinning, harvest or development.

      I recently finished a Type 2IA handcrew assignment in the GBCC, spending 10 days lining out and mopping up burned-out sagebrush and pinyon-juniper in Nevada, Utah and Idaho (dislocated my shoulder on the line of the Sharps Fire with four days to go). I saw a whole lot of fire in a whole lot of country that had nothing to do with a lack of commercial timber harvest (what, is there a big market for PJ lumber that I missed?) and everything to do with record fuel loadings of destructive and essentially-unstoppable invasive grasses taking over the Great Basin.

      During that time, I kept cracking open this book by Stephen Pyne on my Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Between-Two-Fires-History-Contemporary/dp/0816532141 and heeding its lessons. We cannot “control” fire. I thought that word went out of our agency’s lexicon back in the 70s. Frankly, we may not even be able to “manage” fire. We will have to learn to live with it.

      • Well, just how many acres within the Ranch Fire (or, within Lake County, itself) were treated with prescribed fire?!? (Yep, I thought so!) Humans in the past did a LOT more burning than today. Why is that?!? (Yes, we know that answer, too)

        • I fully agree that we need more prescribed and prescribed natural fire back on the landscape. Pace Pyne, though, I’m skeptical that we’ll ever be able to get there. “Box and burn out” might be as a close as we get.

          • Here in Southern Oregon I have seen where box and burn out have killed thousands of mature trees and turned entire watersheds into nothing but rocks and dead trees. This happens every year now, wet year or dry year. Soon there will be only plants left that grow fast after a fire.
            Most of these fires occur on FS lands. I have seen a 9 acre lighting strike fire “monitored” for a month before it turned into a 190,000 acre wildfire.
            Not all fires are the same.
            I just find it contradictory that these same forests we think are so important to preserve some find it acceptable to kill them with fire.
            Travis, as a fire fighter I am sure you have some ideas how to better use our resources.

      • Travis- I think that might be part of Rebecca’s point…
        What if we framed the problem as “living with western wildfires”? That would mean forests, brushlands and grasslands. That would mean dealing with fuels as well as the other interventions you mentioned. Dealing with fuel removal in a way that uses the products might be seen to be beneficial, even when the fuels are trees, rather than burning them. “Sell not burn” (in piles or in wildfires) where fuel treatments are designed. That leads us to a different framing than the 80’s timber wars (leave alone, don’t sell).


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