Now that the blazes have burned out, Montana should reassess what it can do to reduce future wildfire risk. As our fire seasons become longer, more severe, and more expensive, we must improve forest management across the 85 percent of Montana forests at elevated risk of wildfire. Prescribed burns need to be a part of the solution.
By applying a small amount of fire in the right place at the right time, we can reduce future fires. Prescribed burns, also called controlled burns, are small fires applied to a landscape under specified weather conditions to reduce fuel loading and restore health to fire-dependent ecosystems. It sounds counterintuitive to start fires to stop fires, but by burning overgrown brush and hazardous fuels in low-intensity fires during low-risk weather conditions, prescribed burns prevent the overwhelming fuel buildups that allow wildfires to grow to catastrophic infernos.
The benefits of prescribed fire have been seen on the ground this fire season. When the Bootleg Fire ripped through Oregon scorching more than 413,000 acres and destroying nearly 200 homes, the Sycan Marsh Preserve remained intact. Treated with prescribed burns and selective thinning, the preserve lands withstood the flames—the fire burned closer to the ground and left tree crowns green and mature trees alive.
Governor Gianforte has pushed for increased use of prescribed burns and is working with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and federal partners to conduct more burns. However, expanding prescribed burns is more complicated than just spending more money. Real policy hurdles exist and must be addressed.
One hurdle is the air pollution emitted during burns—a problem Montanans experience firsthand during fire season. However, moderate smoke emissions from prescribed burns count against Montana’s compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, which limits the amount of burning that can happen, even though the massive emissions from wildfires do not. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Montana/Idaho Airshed Group also restrict when prescribed burns can occur to reduce smoke impacts. While it certainly is wise to reduce smoke impacts to humans, burn regulators at the state and federal level need to be aware that too cautiously restricting prescribed burns emissions will lead to far greater emissions from wildfires.
Additionally, Montana forests span the jurisdictions of federal, state, tribal, local, and private landowners. This, coupled with permitting and air quality requirements, makes it difficult to actually get prescribed burns done on the ground. Montana leaders should proactively identify ways to work across these boundaries, such as with the Montana Prescribed Fire Council proposed in the Montana Forest Action Plan, to facilitate and coordinate prescribed burns. In designating a group to understand, navigate, and propose streamlined approaches for conducting burns across landscapes and jurisdictions, Montana can scale up our use of controlled fire to manage our forests.
One of the greatest controversies surrounding prescribed burns is the issue of liability if a planned burn grows out of control and damages neighboring property. While very few prescribed burns take off in that way, the fear of being liable for damages keeps land managers from more widely applying prescribed burns. Many states have reduced liability laws for prescribed burns, but the Montana State Legislature voted down a similar proposal in 2017.
Montanans are right to be wary—after all, a key tenant of strong property rights is that someone is held liable when they damage your property—but there are more creative approaches to reduce fear of liability while still taking responsibility for damages. Rather than lowering the burner’s liability, land management agencies, insurance companies, and others who benefit from the application of prescribed fire to reduce wildfire risk could pay into a catastrophe bond. Certified prescribed burn managers could be covered by the catastrophe bond in the very unlikely event that a burn damages others’ property. This approach would ultimately promote prescribed burns by reducing the risk of direct costs to burners while still ensuring damages are accounted for.
Forest managers know that prescribed burns are a necessary tool in restoring our forests and reducing wildfire risk. Reducing regulatory hurdles to conducting more burns in Montana will help free us from the destruction of catastrophic fires.