NewsWildfire Watch


As wildfires intensify, firefighters shift tactics

Posted at 2:21 PM, Mar 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-08 16:39:31-05

Devastating and deadly wildfires are not just happening during the summer months anymore, but year-round.

The U. S. Forest Service says wildfire risk has reached crisis level. In the last five years nearly 41 million acres in the U.S. have burned, or nearly an area the size of Wisconsin.

And now firefighters are making a major adjustment from the top down.

The most destructive wildfire in Colorado history destroyed more than 1,000 homes. And 700 miles away and weeks earlier flames and smoke provided an unexpected backdrop to Christmas decorations as fire tore through the small Montana town of Denton.

"Those anomalous events keep adding up and adding up and adding up to where eventually anomalies are no longer anomalies," said Shawn Borgen, superintendent of the Flathead Hotshots, one of the nation's most skilled firefighter teams. "Now they start becoming normal, and unless something changes, that's where we're headed."

Shawn Borgen, superintendent of the Flathead Hotshots

Signs of Smokey Bear hang in the northwest Montana home of the Flathead Hotshots - a Quonset hut built in the 1940s, the same era the iconic bear's slogan was introduced: "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires."

But the Colorado and Montana fires are recent examples of why that message and the fight against wildfires aren't as simple as they used to be.

"Fires that we go on, with a far higher consistency than I have experienced in 30 years, are burning with stronger volatility than I ever remember. So we got to adjust, and we are adjusting," Borgen said.

That adjustment includes a new wildfire crisis strategy put out by the U.S. Forest Service. It addresses everything from outdated forest management policies of total fire suppression, to climate change and expanded development into forested areas, known as the wildland-urban interface.

The plan of attack includes ramping up prescribed burns and vegetation thinning efforts to four times what is currently being done.

It also means increasing workforce capacity. Crews like the Flathead Hotshots will go from 20 to 25, and they are transitioning so 80 percent of the crew will now be on year around instead of mostly seasonal.

"Unfortunately, with the strong effect climate change is having, this is going to get worse," said Alex Metcalf, an associate professor at the University of Montana W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation. "We’re going to have more fire on the landscape in surprising places that we are going to have to deal with."

Alex Metcalf, an associate professor at the University of Montana W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation

How did we get here? For one, past management strategies.

The Forest Service says wildland fires were historically cool and low to the ground, and prescribed burns were used by Native Americans in the Northern Rockies to keep trees widely spaced.

A 1911 federal policy put a halt to using ground fires for thining and adopted a full suppression strategy in the 1930s.

"For 100 years, we suppressed fire," Metcalf said. "And when it got out of hand, it was a once in a rare event. We’re not going to get away with that for much longer."

Metcalf and his wife, Libby Metcalf, were among the authors of a 2019 publication that advocated many of the bullet points in the new plan.

It also called for a shift in how we think about all fire.

"It’s making your community aware of what’s happening," said Libby Metcalf, a professor of Wildland Management at the University of Montana. "Wildfire’s coming, but how do we prepare for it?"

Libby Metcalf, professor of Wildland Management at the University of Montana W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation

 Climate change amplifies the fuel problem with warmer, dryer conditions and increased winds. It's changed the actual fire fight with crews now focusing on protecting valuable assets in many cases.

"Some of them are so radical that we can't, I mean, you just cannot, you could not line up enough bodies to stop a fire," said Borgen. "You just, you can't, because even if you manage to stop the fire, maybe on the ground in its tracks, they still spot a half a mile, a mile."

There's also agreement that it will get worse before it gets better.

"Everywhere burns," said Borgen. "If you're in the forest, sooner or later it will burn. Now, will it be your life? I don't know. But everywhere will burn.

The Metcalfs say part of the solution includes community plans for how to deal with not only fires but smoke, and creating safety zones.

"There really is a term in our field called 'wicked problems' that are not just hard, that are not just kind of changing a little bit," Alex Metcalf said. "They live at the intersection of peoples’ values. There are no right answers, and there are no solutions. We have to figure out how to live with this."