The Whitehall Ledger - Serving Southern Jefferson County in the Great State of Montana

By Amanda Eggert
Montana Free Press 

Land managers anticipate pivot to 'fast and furious' wildfire strategy in light of COVID-19


Fire ecologist Philip Higuera (left) in the fire scar of the Lolo Peak Fire that burned near Missoula in 2017. Credit: Sarah Sunu

On a late-June bikepacking trip from Superior, Montana, to Hailey, Idaho, fire ecologist Philip Higuera studied wildfire's impact on the landscape, as is his habit when he's in the woods. He started his trip in a rugged and thickly forested area along the Montana-Idaho border that burned in 1910 and continued south through fire scars new and old before arriving in an open, high-elevation area studded with sagebrush 630 miles later.

Along the way, Higuera noted the abundance of standing dead trees that burned in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 2012, but he also observed the emergence of lodgepole pine seedlings, which require the intense heat of a high-severity fire to regenerate, and below them a vibrant growth of blue-violet lupine, magenta fireweed and yellow glacier lilies. Where some might see a wasteland of blackened trees in varying states of decomposition, Higuera saw a landscape that has been, in the words of his bikepacking partner, "refreshed by fire."

Higuera, who teaches fire ecology and paleoecology at the University of Montana, keeps tabs on how the public characterizes and discusses wildfire in the American West. He said land managers and the general population both are making strides toward appreciating fire's role in healthy forest ecosystems.

But concerns generated by COVID-19 could reverse some of that progress as fire managers in the Northern Rockies prepare for a wildfire response that skews heavily toward suppression. This year, the agency's goal is to catch and contain fires when they're small so they won't need to bring firefighters and support personnel from across the United States into fire camps of hundreds or even thousands of people. That could protect firefighters from COVID-19 infection and minimize the likelihood that they'll introduce the virus to nearby communities, but it also has downstream consequences for the health and resilience of fire-adapted ecosystems.


For more than 20 years, the exclusion of fire has been recognized as a "destabilizing influence" for ponderosa pine, pinyon-juniper woodland and tallgrass prairie ecosystems, among others. Policy is starting to come around to reflect the findings of scientists like Higuera, but he said he is wary that COVID-19 will drive a "knee-jerk reaction of putting out everything quickly." He said he's hoping that public and federal agencies instead use this unusual season as an opportunity to rethink the long-term implications of that approach.

"Jumping on every fire and trying to put it out as soon as possible is really reverting to mid-20th century strategies, which we know in the long-term don't work," Higuera said, referencing now-abandoned strategies like the so-called 10 a.m. policy that directed fire managers to put out all fires by 10 a.m. the day after their detection. "It puts off this debt [of unburned fuels] into the future, and that approach doesn't work well under extreme fire conditions."

In a 2019 paper published in Nature Sustainability, Higuera and others make a case for "social-ecological resilience" to wildfire and a broader acceptance of its presence.

"Ultimately, decades of fire science strongly indicate that fuel management, prescribed fires and allowing wildfires to burn under moderate fire weather conditions will protect and promote ecological and cultural resources, and communities, far more effectively and efficiently than trying to eliminate fire from landscapes," the authors argue.

In practice, that approach necessitates a difficult balancing act. Higuera said he doesn't envy fire managers' position this year as they navigate an already dynamic situation that's been further complicated by COVID-19. In addition to raising the stakes for firefighter and community health, COVID-19 has turned 2020 into a year where "uncertainty is everywhere," according to Kit O'Connor, a research ecologist with the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station. Higuera said he's concerned that an emphasis on heavy suppression will continue into future seasons.

"The incentive and the reward is typically on being very conservative and saying, 'we'll just put it out,'" he said. "This year, that tendency is going to be even [stronger] if August and September are indeed above average warmth [with] low precipitation."


In its most recent forecast, the National Interagency Fire Center's Predictive Services Bureau called for above-average significant fire potential across most of Montana during August and September, meaning fires are expected to grow larger and be harder to contain than in an average year. All 10 of the state's national forests are colored red in the outlook, indicating potential for increased fire activity. This is shaping up to be a year when Montana's fire season starts slowly but gathers momentum as temperatures rise and rainfall dwindles.

Fire ecologists like Higuera are paying close attention to the approach that the U.S. Forest Service, Montana's largest federal land manager, takes to wildfire this year. The agency has indicated it will be taking a particularly conservative approach on the 193 million acres it manages across the U.S., including 19 million acres in Montana, by erring on the side of keeping all fires small.

"We don't have an official policy on it, [but] because of COVID concerns, we're going to use aggressive initial attack in all those cases that we can," said Ralph Rau, who heads up the fire, aviation and air program for the Forest Service's Northern Rockies region.

To achieve that objective, the Forest Service has added approximately 100 firefighters and six additional helicopters to its roster in Region One, which includes all of Montana and North Dakota and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota. If the season shapes up the way meteorologists expect it to, those firefighters and helicopters won't be sitting idle.

In addition to the wildfires that are aggressively suppressed in a normal year - namely, those that threaten communities and critical infrastructure - wildfires located deep in the backcountry, and even those in wilderness areas, will be considered for full suppression this year, Rau said.

In previous years, lightning-ignited backcountry fires, like those that burned remote stretches of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Higuera traversed, might have been monitored and allowed to burn within certain parameters. Such fires would be shepherded around a landscape, consuming accumulated fuels, making way for new growth and contributing to the ecosystem's resilience. But that likely won't be the case this year.

Rau said backcountry and wilderness fires will be evaluated for response on an "individual, fire-by-fire basis," and reiterated that this year's focus will be on aggressive initial attack. He added that fire managers' calculations will shift as the season progresses and the availability of firefighting resources fluctuates. Fires burning deep in the backcountry will generally take lower priority than those burning closer to population centers if widespread fires necessitate a triage-type approach, he said.

For fires that do become large, fire camps will look different this year, he added. Many support functions will be handled remotely and, due to COVID-19, smaller, decentralized camps will replace the densely populated tent cities that are common in normal years.


The Bureau of Land Management will take a similar tack as the Forest Service on the nearly 8 million acres it manages in Montana.

USDA Photo

Pictured is a 2018 fire in Montana.

"We intend to jump on fires as fast and furiously as we can," said BLM's Montana-Dakotas State Director John Mehlhoff at Gov. Steve Bullock's annual wildfire season briefing on June 16. "We have 175 of our permanent firefighters and an additional 215 support personnel all ready to roll. It's highly likely we'll use all of them in this fire season."

Wildfires occurring on private or state-owned land are generally under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Its goal is almost always to snuff out fires completely; the DNRC's objectives are oriented around the protection of life, property and natural resources, such as state trust land that's harvested for lumber. In that regard, the DNRC's approach will be similar to years past.

This article was originally published by Montana Free Press. For more information, please visit


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