Impacts of climate change are occuring across our state. With impacts on precipitation, temperature, and increases in pests such as bark beetles, the changes are becoming noticeable.
How is climate change impacting wildland fires in Montana today? How is it impacting land, wildlife, and people? What does this mean for taxpayers?
With all the environmental shifts taking place in our state, wildland fires are expected to become both more frequent and more severe. While this poses and immense challenge, many adaptive and creative solutions are being pursued to prepare for these shifts.
Fires are becoming an even bigger part of our landscape as the impacts of climate change take root. On average, the western fire season is now 78 days longer each year compared with the period between 1970 and 1985, and has been accompanied by a four-fold increase in the number of large fires (>1000 acres) and a six-fold increase in the number of acres burned each year.
Major factors in this increased frequency and severity include: significantly earlier snowmelt and hotter summer temperatures (which results in reduced soil moisture). Additionally, the longer fire season as well as the expanded vulnerable area of high-elevation forests (largely due to the earlier snowmelt)--are combing to produce the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires.
These wildfires are larger than they have been historically, with fewer than 5 percent of the fires accounting for 95 percent of the total areas burned in the West. Similar increases have been reported in Canada.
Cost: These fires become large and uncontrollable, despite efforts to suppress them. Such efforts can cost over $20 million dollars a day. With the increased amount of fire has come an increase in cost, one that is becoming exceedingly difficult for governmental agencies to bear.
Currently fighting wildfires costs US taxpayers $3 Billion annually, more than twice what it cost a decade ago. Even more dramatic increases in the severity and frequency of wildfire are expected.
Fire as part of the land: Fire has been a part of Montana's landscape for a long time. It is important to remember that fire is key to many ecosystems, and in many areas is the mechanism by which the forest is continually regenerated.
Ecological Role: Fire serves as a recycling agent for dead biomass (particularly in arid areas with slow decomposition rates). Many ecosystems in Montana have been developed under fire regimes and need incremental fires to revive the ecosystem and clear the way for new growth.
Some species rely on fire to spread their seeds.Certain pine species produce "seratonous" (resin-filled) cones that are very durable. The cones remain dormant until a fire occurs and melts the resin. Then the cones pop open and the seeds fall or blow out. Additionally, the Black Back Woodpecker forages insects that attack burned trees.
While we need fire on the land, we don't need it on the WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, which refers to private land near fire-prone public land.
Recently, more and more homes have been built on dangerous, fire prone lands. Only 4 percent of homes in the West are in the WUI. Statewide, the cost of protecting homes from forest fires averages $28 million annually, which is a third of the total cost of figting fires in Montana each year.
For those who live in the WUI and face these risks, there are many things that can be done to protect homes from risk of fire.
In the end, while the increase in wildfire severity and frequency poses a serious challenge to Montana, there are a variety of actions that can be take to begin adapting to our changing state.
Fire proofing homes in the WUI, ecosystem restoration, and fuel thinning are important step in conserving both money and resources. Additionally, mapping, education, federal aid for land use planning, zoning, and scenario planning for fires are all viable options.