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The Seasonal Nature of Fire Season

Many people who live in heavily forested states cringe when they hear the phrase, “fire season”. However, many people don’t understand how the designation is arrived at.

In the US, it is usually the US Forest Service that is charged with accessing the fire hazards in the forests. This is complex and it takes into consideration the dryness of the soil, the amount of deadfall, the amount of grasses, and so forth.

The hazard is then posted in the forests. The danger rating varies from low, moderate, high, extreme, extreme level II, and extreme level III. A fire can occur regardless of the rating, but the higher the rating, the more likely it is to happen.

A lot of this is because of seasonal weather. If there has been an abundance of winter snow and spring rain, grasses grow fast and thick. Inevitably, the grasses dry out and they act as tinder, burning hot and fast enough to catch deadfall and trees on fire.

How hot or dry the year is simply effects when fire season is declared. 

In 2017, fire season began here in the first few days of June. That is unusually early for Montana and that was driven by seasonal changes. The problem wasn’t seasonal, though. For the previous 8 years, the budget for the forest service was so low that there was neither the personnel nor the equipment to fight major forest fires or wildfires. The budget of 2017 was a ‘left-over’ from those previous 8 years. As a result, small fires became huge fires before people and equipment could be put into place to battle the blazes.

In 2017, this problem was responsible for well over a million acres of prime forest burning in Montana. The forests here are mostly pine, fir, hemlock, and larch. None of these are fast-growing trees, so it can take decades for a forest to recover from a major fire. Many areas can’t be replanted, either, because of the ruggedness of the terrain.

In 2018, conditions were better and fire season was delayed by a few weeks. There was also funding in place to fight fire. The difference was night and day. Small fires were put out before they became major. Although there were still fires in Montana, most were put out before they were allowed to grow.

It is too early to tell what 2019 will bring, but our fire hazard is still at moderate, though it is nearly July. On the off-season, the forest service has also been busy clearing the forests of deadfall, thanks to funding, so there is less fuel for a wildfire. Although the amount of moisture we’ve received over the winter and spring is great enough to bring about a major fire year, so far everything bodes well. 

Mind you, there will be fires, just as there are every year. It is simply looking good right now, in the last week of June. That can change in a hurry, but the outlook is good so far.

The best way to minimize damage from forest fires is through prevention. However, most forest fires in Montana are caused by lightning and we can’t control lightning. It should be noted that the major forest fires in California last year (2018) were preventable. Those weren’t spawned by lightning. Poor forest management led to sparking from powerlines and the like. However, such things are rare in Montana.

Incidentally, in case anyone wonders, the difference between extreme, extreme level II, and extreme level III mostly relates to the public. In an Extreme danger, no open fires are allowed, including camp stoves. In level II, no unofficial vehicles are allowed on forest service roads between 1 pm and dark. In level III, all forest service roads are closed, period.

  • Did you know before reading this how ‘fire season’ was determined?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Have you ever seen a raging forest fire?

    • Yes, but from several miles away
    • No
    • Yes, up close and personal
  • Do forest fires worry you, where you presently live?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Do you think the government should make sure that there is emergency funding in the case of forest fires?

    • Yes
    • No

What do you think?

16 points
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Written by Rex Trulove

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22 Comments

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    • They came close to evacuating our town two years ago when the fire was burning only about 2 miles out of town. They did evacuate over 100 families, but they didn’t need to evacuate town because of a massive effort to stop it from advancing closer (and a lot of prayers).

    • Right out of high school, I fought a forest fire. It was an experience I’d prefer to never repeat, though it was an important experience. When I fought fire, it was 110 degrees, not counting the heat of the fire. It was miserable, to say the least.

  1. I always prayed every year when I read about the forest fires. I was already living here in Florida when Latvia experience unusually hot weather and for the first time had forest fires and no one really knew what to do. I hope they have learned about them and are ready if anything happens this year. So I am glad to be living in a land of palm tree and no forest and the ocean to jump into just a short distance away. Here is a link from last year about Latvia for your interest.

    https://www.dw.com/en/forest-fires-devastate-western-latvia/a-44780389

  2. I did a project for the communication system of the US Forest Service. We had to stop in Mid-August and be on hold through the middle of November. (fire season that year).

    The issue of funding is a much broader issue. The funding goes to three agencies (FEMA, USFS, and DOI) each has a different mission for the time and money.

    There is a permanent fund for FEMA, the other two are allocated depending on the year.

    • I remember that in 2017, Montana was sort of held hostage. Wildfires raged, but politicians wanted to debate whether to authorize money to do anything about it. Thankfully, the new secretary of the interior was from Montana and the senators and congressmen from forest states helped to push through the funding.

      The forest service is still badly underfunded, but at least they’ve been given the green light to actually manage the forests. That was something they were blocked from doing for actually since before the Clinton presidency.

      • Forest Service struggles because of its mission. The recent “cleaning the forest floor reduces fire risk” argument shows an utter lack of understanding of how forests work.

        You have to have the ground cover leaves etc to renew the soil!

        I worked at Lockheed Martin we actually had built a new forest service plane that could move more water, faster on fires. The Forest service currently for the most part replaces 1 to 2 planes a year on a fleet of 40. You are correct they are horribly underfunded. I wonder, based on 3 shark attacks in NC, will we suddenly see beach safety become the number one issue in front of Congress for DOI?

        • Too often, the funding cuts have been initiated because so many politicians have no idea at all what the forest service does. I’d guess that some in DC think that during the off-season, forest service personnel sit around doing nothing.

          My brother retired from the USFS almost a decade ago. At the time, he was one of only four people in the forest service who could read a thermal imaging map of forest fires. He was a lot more than a regional fire supervisor, though. He was a silviculturist, planner, and he did a lot of things for which there were no job descriptions.

          He was also outspoken, as much as it was allowed, in regard to how the forest service stopped managing the forests in the 1970s. Some of the ideas that came out of Washington after that time were ludicrous, to say the least. Some of them were actually based on good ideas, but could no longer be implemented.

          For example, the idea of allowing forest fires to burn themselves out is a very old one. In the early 1800s, it would have worked. In fact, Native Americans routinely started fires in the forests in the springtime, which increased the health of the forest. But when the forest service (and park service) first gained power, they put a halt to the practice. After a half-century or more of suppressing all fires, the forest floors were so choked with debris that ‘let it burn’ was asking for trouble. When they tried letting the great fire in Yellowstone burn itself out, the lost about half of the forest in Yellowstone. There are still visible scars from that fire.

          The original idea was a good one, but changing a major policy in mid-path after many decades of doing it totally differently was a recipe for disaster. Wholesale clearing of deadfall on the forest floor is also not the answer, as you pointed out. Unfortunately, government bureaucracy is such that they often see things in a binary fashion; yes or no, all in or not at all. There IS a happy medium, but they have a really hard time seeing it.

          • Oh i truly understand the value of that mission.

            The reality is it is the most bifurcated mission I’ve seen other than the US Coast Guard.

            FEMA
            DOI
            USFS

            too many cooks

        • Neither FEMA nor DOI should be involved with forest fires, except in instances when people must be relocated (evacuated). They routinely overstep their bounds, but the forest service was created to manage the forests and that includes dealing with wildfires.

          Of course, the FS sometimes oversteps their bounds, too. A couple of years ago when we had the fire that was very close to town, forest service personnel were actively working to protect homes. That isn’t the job of the forest service, though the result was that no homes were lost.

          FEMA does their best work after the disaster is over and they shouldn’t be trying to do things that they have no expertise in. Of course, I’m not saying that FEMA needs to stay out until a fire is out…that can take months. However, they should wait at least for containment.

          I still don’t understand why FEMA and other government funds are sometimes used to replace a home that is destroyed in a flood plain, rebuilding in the same spot, though they have data that the house(s) are destroyed in that location due to floods every few years. Color me purple, but I don’t see the sense in that. At least when a major fire destroys a forest, it is several decades before that forest has grown enough to destroy any house that was also destroyed in the fire.

          • FEMA is responsible for all impacted people. They also are mandated to respond to all emergencies (many forest fires become emergencies far too late)

            FEMA actually engages long before the disaster hits.

            USFS is part of DOI.

        • Oh, I know that the FS is in the scope of the department of the interior, but the DOI should have an oversight position only. The fs is hands-on and the DOI should be primarily bureaucratic.
          Too often, they get in the way.

          FEMA often compounds forest fire problems by getting in the way and trying to take control. They tried to do that during our major fires and they were told in no uncertain terms, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Now, get the bleep out of thee way.” They did. One snotty FEMA agent tried to get snotty and one of the crew chiefs simply handed him a shovel and told him that a fireline was being built. If he wanted to help, start digging.

          • now you have detailed the problem – the other side, of course, is simple. FEMA gets KILLED in the press USFS does not as much.

            If USFS is will to step up and take the hit…

            DOI, by the way, is responsible for more than bureaucratic oversight, one of the problems we have today is no one lets the concept of management work!

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