Fires stress need to act
— Local decision making could help
Wildfires are currently burning in a number of western states, drawing attention to the need for Congress to take action to fund wildland firefighting and prevention programs. In July the House Appropriations Committee released its 2018 Interior Environmental Bill that includes proposed funding for U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) fire suppression efforts.
The Western Governors' Association (WGA) has also taken a stand on the importance of funding firefighting efforts and ending the practice of fire borrowing (the reallocation of resources to fire suppression activities from other intended uses). WGA passed a resolution (2017-09) at its annual meeting in July calling for adequate money and suggesting that litigation hampering forest and public land management efforts be limited.
Montana is just one of the states currently experiencing an active wildfire season. Near-record temperatures, wind, low relative hu midity and below-normal precipitation have elevated fire danger levels to “high” and “extreme” across much of the state. On July 23, Gov. Steve Bullock declared a statewide fire emergency.
As of last Thursday, there were 151 fire incidents being tracked in the U.S. on InciWeb, an interagency information management site. Of those, 26 were in Montana.
WGA Director of Strategic Initiatives Troy Timmons talked to WLJ about the importance of ending the practice of fire borrowing, explaining that there are a number of issues to be considered.
First, he said the rising cost of fighting wildfire means that today over half of the entire USFS budget is spent on fire suppression.
Additionally, federal agencies may need to stop their routine work mid-season to address and pay for urgent wildfires. “These factors reduce agency capacity to support forest and rangeland restoration—including the very measures that can reduce risks of uncharacteristic wildfire in the first place.” He went on to say addressing the practice of fire borrowing is an important first step to allow federal agencies to focus on improving the overall health and resilience of forests and rangelands.
Travis Brown, whose ranch headquarters is 11 miles west of Sand Springs, MT, was impacted by the Lodgepole Complex fire, which burned about onethird of his ranch. He noted that the area where he lives is also in one of the worst droughts he can remember. “We’re short on grass—already some of it burned— and the hay crop wasn’t very good; 2017 has been a year with some challenges.”
In addition to losing grazing land to the fire, Brown said they lost three head of cattle to the fire, and may find more. However, he pointed out, at least in terms of cattle lost it was not as devastating as the fires that burned in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas earlier this year.
Brown’s family ranch includes private, state and BLM land. Referring to the mix of individuals and agencies involved, he explained, “Getting everybody on the same page on how this land recovers from both the drought and the fire will be key to recovery.”
He noted that so far those involved are working together, saying Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff are providing technical assistance in areas that will require a long recovery, especially timbered and sagebrush prairie areas. He said part of the discussion has involved how to use cows to put seeds back into the ground through hoof action.
“BLM, NRCS and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge all have firefighting teams, and then you have the local ranchers—everybody is fighting together to get it out,” he said. “Now we are going to be working together again to make the best situation we can going forward.”
Roughly 350 miles to the west, near Potomac, MT, rancher Justin Iverson talked to WLJ as he sat on a fire engine while on call in his role as a volunteer firefighter.
Although the Iverson ranch has not lost forage or cattle to the fire, it is still impacted; as of last Thursday, the area was still under a Stage 2 fire restriction. The restriction means they aren’t allowed to have internal combustible engines on roads after 1 p.m. and the roads remain closed until 1 a.m. The restriction means they need to get to pastures early to check cattle.
This time of year is haying season in Montana and the restriction is hampering harvest in some areas.
Iverson said forested areas need to stop work at 1 p.m. with non-forested areas exempt from the restriction.
He explained that although his ranch doesn’t have trees, it is located within a mile of timbered land so is considered a forested zone. After stopping work at 1 p.m. Iverson said the workers need to stay nearby for another hour to watch for any fires that may have sparked from equipment in the hay field.
As a precaution, Iverson keeps a 300-gallon water tank with a pump in the field when putting up hay. Another precaution they took this year was on a barley field under center pivot irrigation that was being cut for hay. In that field, they used a chisel and plowed all of the pivot tire tracks creating a fire break every 60 yards.
As mentioned, Iverson is a volunteer firefighter, giving him a close-up view of the toll incidents like this take on resources including finances, equipment and humans. He explained that, especially for a volunteer department, long-term fire incidents make it difficult to staff fire equipment.
Like Brown, Iverson said there is a good working relationship between state and federal agencies on the ground and producers in the area. “Everybody around here is pretty much on board that we need to get this fuel mitigated, some way, somehow.” He said, adding, “It is interests outside of the local area that is stopping it, not the people who live here.”
Iverson referred to the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek fires near Lincoln, MT, saying those areas had been slated for fuel mitigation but the work was held up in court.
Looking to the future for relief, Iverson said he has heard reports saying significant moisture is not expected any time soon. He told WLJ there is a 50 percent chance of a season-ending event in September. By October, the probability of significant moisture jumps to 90 percent.
Ethan Lane, Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Federal Lands executive director, told WLJ that the current fire situation “underscores the point we have made and continue to make that we need to make sure those accounts [fire suppression] are adequately funded so they have the resources necessary when these fires come up.”
Lane also emphasized that land managers need to look at all of the tools available to help prevent fires, including livestock grazing. He noted that programs should allow BLM and USFS the flexibility to allow grazing earlier in the year when appropriate, and then to allow cattle back on permits late in the year to consume additional growth that could become fuel for fires going into the next year.
While roadblocks seem to be abundant, Lane said he believes progress is being made in helping decision makers understand changes that need to be made. “Currently agencies are hobbled by some of their own policy,” he explained, noting that the issue of wildland fire has many components: the management before the fire starts; firefighting; and then recovery. “That recovery and restoration benefits from getting grazing back in place early.”
Moving forward, in considering budgets or overall management, Lane emphasized that “flexibility” is the key watchword. “Managers on the ground need the ability to look at conditions and act accordingly.”
Lane relayed a comment from a meeting he recently attended where a point was made that something is going to harvest the grass, either livestock grazing or fire. “So, let’s be smart about how we use these resources so that we can have a productive environment,” he said. — Rae Price, WLJ editor