The Roaring Lion Fire is prompting some new wrinkles in old arguments over wildfire suppression.
The 11-day-old Roaring Lion Fire southwest of Hamilton is now nothing like the fire-storm that appeared on July 31. On that day, volunteer Rick Potts was manning the St. Mary Lookout west of Stevensville when he spotted the first tendrils of smoke. By the time, he and other lookouts could triangulate the position, the fire was billowing smoke high into the sky over the Bitteroot Mountains.
“I was working initial attack in Yellowstone in (the big fire year of) 1988. This took off faster than anything I saw then,” Potts said.
Fanned by gusty west winds, the blow-up burned 16 homes and more than 3,600 acres that first day. Most residents got out in time although one death occurred.
Two days later, the temperatures and wind rose again, this time pushing the flames south and west to torch another 2,700 acres.
Climate change is causing wildfires to occur more often, be more severe and more erratic because it deepens drought and bakes forests where fires have been suppressed for decades. Prior to the Roaring Lion Fire, southwestern Montana had endured at least a week with high temperatures in the 90s and lows dipping only to the upper 50s. Add that to the fact that the Bitterroot region is drastically dry, and you have the makings of high wildfire potential.
By June 1, snowpack was down to only one-third of average in the Bitterroot and precipitation had been only 80 percent of average, according to the Natural Resources and Conservation Service.
As of Aug. 9, the Roaring Lion Fire had burned 8,270 acres and was 60 percent contained. Firefighters estimate parts of the fire will burn until weather gets cooler and wetter at the end of September.
As the sense of emergency has died down, some finger-pointing and politics have begun.
Since homes were damaged or destroyed, some are claiming that the loss could have been avoided if a planned logging project had been allowed to go ahead.
The Bitterroot National Forest supervisor approved the 2,327-acre Westside Collaborative Vegetation Management Project at the beginning of July. The Forest Service would have cut a narrow swath between private and public land from Roaring Lion Creek south 7 miles to Lost Horse Creek starting at the end of August.
The Westside Project was proposed in 2014 as part of the state’s $5 million Forest In Focus program. It was one of 13 areas in Montana where logging projects were expedited.
But private landowners along the project boundary objected to logging and building roads along their property and formed their own coalition. The Ravalli County Commission also claimed country roads couldn’t withstand the additional traffic.
Environmental groups will sometimes step in to oppose logging projects. But in this case, private landowners sued after the project was approved, claiming they weren’t included in the “collaborative” process. Bitterroot LLC and Fred Rohrbach are the plaintiffs, and Rohrbach, who could not be reached, appears to have been a Missoula-based smokejumper in his youth.
Since the Roaring Lion Fire, some have suggested the landowners’ lawsuit aided the fire.
Sen. Steve Daines argued in an Aug. 7 editorial that the Roaring Lion Fire showed there was a need for forest treatment projects that “reduce the risk and magnitude of wildfires.”
However, scientists have studied several recent wildfires and found that small thinning projects do little in the way of stopping severe wildfires like the first day of the Roaring Lion Fire. Such firestorms can jump and race unhindered through hundreds of acres, and the only thing thinning does is sometimes reduce the damage. Fewer trees die because they aren’t completely scorched, according to a 2011 Sawtooth National Forest study.
Scientists have concluded that thinning has varying effects depending on the conditions and the location and size of the thinned area, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. While some thinned areas have slowed and even stopped wildfires, the newly opened areas can sometimes cause fires to speed up, pushed through low vegetation by winds that were held at bay by thicker stands.
That’s why thinning alone is not as effective as thinning combined with prescribed burns, said Mark Finney of the U.S. Forest Service Fire Lab in Missoula.
“Thinning and burning is the most effective prescription at changing behavior of wildfires,” Finney said. “Fuel treatments don’t stop fires – that isn’t one of the benefits. It changes the behavior so you can either be more effective with suppression or it just slows the fire down so that it buys time.”
In the case of the Roaring Lion Fire, the Westside Project wouldn’t have made a difference and may have made things worse because of the timing. Since the project was slated to last three years, the necessary prescribed burning probably wouldn’t have occurred until the end. Finney has researched wildfire behavior in areas with varying levels of logging and found that fire “ripped through logged areas” that hadn't received controlled burning.
In the meantime, logging crews might have left slash and debris that would ignite quickly when a wildfire came through. Thinned stands containing slash were more likely to burn at high severity than even unthinned stands, according to a Northern Arizona University study.
Most of the area charred by the Roaring Lion Fire is in the mountains above the project area. The fire appears to have burned about 640 acres in the north end of the project area on the first day and another 640 two days later. The southern one-half to two-thirds of the project area remains unburned.
As with many fires near populated areas, firefighters had to spend a good portion of their time trying to defend private property rather than controlling the fire, which might have contributed to the fire’s spread.
Of the 16 homes burned, it is unknown at this point how many sat along the proposed Westside Project. It is also unknown how many landowners had followed guidelines to clear trees away from homes to create a defensible space. That is where thinning is especially helpful if people insist on living in the wildland-urban interface.