Bernie Kuntz: Fire problems in the West


Wildfires burned over much of the West last summer and fall, and at one point in Montana alone there were 22 fires burning. The air was so smoky for much of the summer, that Laurie and I spent most of our evenings indoors.

In California hundreds of thousands of acres of trees and brushlands burned, and some 42 people died.

Many people blame climate change for the fires, and certainly the dry, hot weather was a factor. But there is more to it than simply dismissing all these fires to climate change.

Forest management practices also play a large role. According to the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, during the past decade wildfires in the U.S. have burned an average of 6.6 billion acres each year—twice the annual average during the 1990s. The federal government spent more than $2.7 billion fighting wildfires in the most recent fiscal year. The State of Montana spent a couple hundred million dollars fighting fires, wrecking the state’s budget and requiring cuts to many state agencies totally unrelated to fires.

It is important to note that in 1910 there occurred one of the worst wildfires in modern times, killing hundreds of people, burning down dozens of towns and blackening wide swaths of forest land in Idaho and Montana.

Shortly thereafter the U.S. Forest Service began its fire suppression program. (Remember “Smokey The Bear?”) That program was so successful that we ended up with more than a century of fire suppression, leading to great changes in forest conditions. In previous times fires were frequent and low intensity, but after more than a century of fire suppression they are often destructive and out of control.

This leads to another problem—environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, while valuable at face value, are abused by environmental activists who file lawsuit after lawsuit to halt as much logging and controlled burn projects as they are able. This is in spite of the fact that timber harvest has declined 80 percent since 1990, leaving more trees to burn in wildfires.

An example can be found right outside of Bozeman where the Forest Service planned to thin 3,000 acres of dense forest and conduct prescribed burns on another 1,575 acres to protect the city’s water supply. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council sued the Forest Service in 2013, arguing that the project would damage critical habitat of the Canadian lynx, a federally protected species. The project has been tied up in court ever since.

I sympathize with Forest Service employees. Rather than managing forests as they were educated, trained and hired to do, they spend most of their time and budget fighting fires and defending projects in court. In the end, judges make management decisions on forest land rather than professional foresters.

There is some hope: Rep. Bruce Westerman (R. Ark.) has proposed legislation that would exempt some thinning projects up to 10,000 acres, from environmental reviews. A separate bill proposed by Montana senators Steve Daines (R.) and Jon Tester (D.) would limit legal challenges to some forest management projects, removing obstacles to some 80 fuels reduction projects, including the one mentioned earlier in this piece on the outskirts of Bozeman.

Local governments now encourage homeowners not to build on the edges of forest land, and to “fire-proof” their property by creating buffer zones around buildings, including brush removal and modified landscaping.

That might help, but there are no easy answers to the West’s fire problems.

Contact Bernie Kuntz at