Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

While this old adage isn’t entirely true at all times, it underscores the fact that the air in Montana is filled with smoke. A great deal of media attention focuses, rightly, on natural disasters like hurricanes, tropical storms, tornados, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. In the Pacific Northwest, there is another yearly natural disaster that is contended with; wildfire.

When there is an abnormally high amount of moisture early in the year, like there was early in 2017, grasses, underbrush, and forbs (weeds) grow in profusion. Late in the year, when the forests dry out, which is a common annual occurrence, all this material becomes fuel for wildfires. A single spark is all that it takes to ignite a horrendous and devastating conflagration that is hard to imagine without witnessing it.

It needs to be pointed out that wildfire is being classed here as a natural disaster for a reason. While there are a large number of fires every year that are started due to human carelessness and which aren’t completely ‘natural’ disasters because of this, a huge number of the yearly fires start from lightning strikes. If the forest conditions are dry, these fires can expand rapidly and the destruction is devastating.

Currently, in Montana alone, there are in excess of 38 major fires burning. Some of these are contained after only burning 100-200 acres. Many or most of the fires end up far in excess of this.

Fires that burn in excess of 1,000 acres of forest are common. Many burn over 10,000 acres. The biggest fire in the state at the time this article is being written covers over 270,000 acres.

As of the morning of the last day of August 2017, according to the forest service, over 602,000 acres of forest and grassland is burning in Montana. To put it into perspective, that is nearly 940 square miles of forest and grassland that is on fire.

As already mentioned, this is from 38 fires and it doesn’t include fires that the forest service has nothing to do with. The fires are scattered all over the state and the majority are lightning-caused.

Thankfully, most of that land is wildland, so homes and structures that are threatened are minimal, although many areas are under evacuation orders. Unfortunately, the forests that are burning are home to thousands of wild animals. It also takes many years for the trees and underbrush to grow back, even with help from people. In many cases, the trees that are burning are fully mature pines, firs, and hemlocks. It takes a bit more than a half-century for a pine tree to reach maturity, so the devastation is felt for a long time.

The men and women who fight the fire are also at grave risk and they work incredibly hard to contain and control the wildfires. They deserve recognition, though that isn’t the reason they are doing the dangerous work.

The firefighters also come from all walks of life. Some are employees of the US Forest Service, state forestry, Bureau of Land Management, or are members of local Native American tribes. However, about a week ago, the National Guard in Montana was mobilized to fight fire, too. Many local citizens get involved in actively fighting wildfires or in support capacities. There are even a large number of private companies that supply resources and equipment. Several of the helicopters shown in these images are owned and piloted by private businesses.

People rarely hear about the tremendous work and effort that goes into combatting this natural disaster. Right now, there are blazes burning throughout the Pacific Northwest and in Canada. There are fires in many other states as well.

It is appropriate to take a moment or two to acknowledge everyone who is involved in fire suppression efforts and to say a prayer for the safety of the people who are actually battling the blazes.

The valleys in Montana are clogged with smoke. The reason is that there really is fire in virtually any compass direction you can point. The fires are a means for nature to renew itself, but in the process, there is enormous lost.


What do you think?

Written by Rex Trulove


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  1. This is so sad. I can’t really understand the scope of these wildfires – they are so huge. When we lived in Southern California, there were some fires and it was so frightening, even closing off highways at times. We live on about a quarter acre of land. We have forest all along our back property line and love the fox, deer, squirrels, rabbits, and deer that visit us – along with so many birds. I can’t imagine life without the huge trees.

    When we lived in North Carolina, our neighborhood was devastated by a tornado the night that we moved to CA. Many houses were completely destroyed and the 50 foot pine trees that surrounded each home providing privacy were sheered off. It took 2 1/2 years to sell our house because the area looked like a war zone, and the lots looked so much smaller without trees. That isn’t the same, but it was traumatic for us, so I understand a bit.

    Thanks Rex

    • The scope is hard for anyone to truly grasp. The total land in Montana that is currently on fire is larger than the state of Rhode Island. There are major fires burning in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California….when the acreage is added up, it is staggering. Many of the fires are also exceptionally difficult to get to. The fire that is currently burning about 7 miles from where I live is growing fast because the terrain is so steep that it is hard to get people and equipment in there to fight it.

      It seems that we have at least one serious/major fire every year. Last year, 233,000 acres burned about 11 miles north of here. Needless to say, though we are in town, we have an emergency evacuation kit ready to go. Of more concern would be our animals, mostly because of space restraints, but if push ever comes to shove, we’ll figure out a way.

  2. Really enjoyed this piece Rex. I remember accidentally stumbling upon a forest fire in a eucalyptus wood in Portugal towards the end of the summer last year. It’s amazing how quickly it can spread!

    There’s no denying the devastation they can leave but I do like to keep in mind the positives that these kinds of fires can have on an ecosystem. I found this article quite interesting:

      • Yes, fires kill insect pests, remove weeds and grass, kill weak and diseased trees, add wood ash to the ground, and get rid of deadfall. The problem is that they’ve been suppressed for over a century in the US so in most forested locations, deadfall has built up until it can be feet thick. That stuff can smolder for days, weeks, or even longer, then flare up. They destroy houses, power transmission lines, wildlife, and they produce huge amounts of pollution.

        I really should write a piece about the pros and cons of forest fire.

          • If I was a couple of decades younger, I’d probably be right out there with the fire crews. I’ve fought forest fire in the past and my brother retired from the US Forest Service after 30+ years of fighting forest fire. Part of the problem people have is that they often know about forest fire only as fourth-hand or fifth-hand information, without ever coming close to experiencing it or seeing it close up. People die every year in forest fires, millions of board-feet of lumber burns in the fires, countless wild animals perish in them, and many structures and homes are lost. They are more destructive than most people realize, for all the good they do.

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