Smoke rising from the forest is ominous. It’s often the first alarm of another wildfire, sparked by lightning or carelessness, about to turn catastrophic and deadly.
This is what good smoke looks like. It drifts, then disperses when the fire is intentionally set and controlled to burn off brush and fallen trees.
Prescribed fires may reduce scorched earth, experts agree, and regenerate healthy forests made weak by drought, climate change and bad policy. They build a buffer to protect communities and create clear space for firefighters to do their work.
An ancient art perfected by Indigenous people and verified by scientific data, the practice could be used more in the struggle against ever-intensifying wildfires amid climate change. So what is standing in the way?
Wildfires need fuel to burn. A key way to get rid of that fuel is to set it ablaze, very carefully.
It’s a clear, sunny spring morning in Seeley Lake, Mont., and 34 firefighters are gathering on a road east of town, drip torches in hand. They are here to set a fire, not stop one.
One of the primary defenses Western land managers have against large uncontrollable wildfires are small controlled fires like the one firefighters are setting this day, May 17.
The greater northwest Montana region has a long familiarity with wildfire, cultural fire and fire suppression. The landscape is peppered with fire lookouts, some staffed, some used for recreation, and all an evocation of a time before aircraft were widely available to spot new fire starts.
Seeley Lake is a popular tourist town of about 1,300 near the Clearwater River, nestled below the steep and snow-capped Mission and Swan mountain ranges.
To the west is Flathead Reservation, home to the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribes, who long have used fire to shape their landscape and sustain forests.
To the east are boundaries of the Rice Ridge wildfire, which burned over 160,000 acres and imperiled about 100 homes from July to September 2017.
To help forestall that danger again, firefighters and park rangers carried out prescribed burns in 2019 and 2021, in two small areas of Lolo National Forest near Seeley Lake neighborhoods.
The terrain here is like much of Northwest Montana, defined by mountainsides rising steeply from a chain of glacial lakes before giving way to rugged ridgelines, all blanketed with brush and towering swaths of ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and western larches.
The ponderosas and larches are the gems of this wild and expansive landscape. Seeley Lake is home to one of the largest western larches in the world, a towering attraction known as Gus, some 163-feet tall and about 1,000 years old. Trees this big are intimately connected to fire, because heat and flames strengthen the trees’ bark and protect them from future, higher-severity wildfires.
In a swath of land that the U.S. Forest Service purchased from a private timber company in 2007, fire crews prepare to burn around 120 acres of forest. The goal: reduce the combustible vegetation that is fast fuel for wildfires and beef up protection for the community.
Fire engines stand by in case water is needed to control hot spots within the fire lines or any “spots” that occur outside of these boundaries, which in this case are existing roads. The burn boss is responsible for executing the burn as it was planned, coordinating resources and monitoring smoke. Firefighters fill their drip torches with a mix of diesel and gasoline, which will flow down the canister’s long neck to a wick, where a small amount of ignited fuel mixture will drip off onto brush, grass and leaf litter. A test fire is lit.
When the burn boss judges that it is burning well, the choreography begins.
Firefighters stagger across the landscape, forming a line. Each one has a deep well of experience with how fire, land and wind interact. Eastern slopes get the least sun and hold more moisture; they need more fire to reduce the fuel. South and western slopes are hotter and drier; using less fire here will ensure that things don’t burn too hot.
Before European colonization, the forests adjacent to Seeley Lake burned around four times a century and cleared out the brush beneath these mature trees. This regular burning — whether natural or lit by the Indigenous people who call the land home — came to an abrupt halt in the 1850s, according to tree ring samples done by the Forest Service in 1997, resulting in nearly two centuries of vegetation buildup.
This policy of fire suppression, started to protect growing settlements and a fledgling timber economy, resulted in completely excluding fire from landscapes that had adapted with it. Indigenous practitioners who attempted to continue their traditional burning practices often were punished.
The Big Burn of 1910, caused by lightning strikes and railroad sparks, burned 3 million acres in Washington, Northern Idaho and Western Montana, killed at least 85 people and galvanized an almost militant full-suppression firefighting strategy by the Forest Service. And it all but decimated a public understanding that fire was critical for healthy forests.
That year was the worst for fires in Montana — until 2017, when huge swaths of Lolo National Forest were part of the estimated 1.2 million acres that burned across the state. In July, the Rice Ridge Fire swept close to Seeley Lake’s residents but ended up burning over 160,000 acres of mostly federal land on the steep, glaciated slopes jutting skyward on the lake’s eastern edge before it was finally contained in September.
So the threat of destructive wildfires is ever present in the small tourism-dependent town that swells with adventurers each summer seeking fishing, hiking and respite in the wilderness.
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This day’s prescribed burn was years in the making, and May 17 served up one of those infrequent days that offers ideal conditions: The weather is mild, the winds will ensure smoke disperses well and the trees and brush are just dry enough to burn a bit, but not too much. Permits have been procured, a burn plan is in place and there’s a full staff of people to perform the slow and deliberate task of safely and effectively putting fire on the ground.
Before a prescribed burn, fire crews establish fire lines. The fire lines surrounding the roughly 120 acres here are existing roads. They allow easy access for fire engines to control any hot spots within or outside the perimeter.
The Washington Post created this orthophoto one month after the 2021 prescribed burn to document its effect on the landscape. The technique pairs drone aerial imagery to the topography of the terrain. It offers a much higher-resolution survey of the burn’s effects than satellite imagery.
“It’s important for people to understand that we aren’t fireproofing this area. Wildfire is a natural part of this ecosystem.” – Kate Jerman, public affairs officer for Lolo National Forest.
These types of burns are at their best when they merely creep along the forest floor, burning low vegetation and immature trees while sparing larger trees.
“One [objective for this burn] was to reduce the possibility that a wildfire is going to get up in the crowns and run,” Seeley Lake District Ranger Quinn Carver said. “We want to keep the fires on the ground, where we can directly attack them and put them out, particularly near houses and other developments.”
In this case, the goal is to burn some of the immature Douglas firs in this unit. The native trees can serve as “ladders” that help fire to move from the ground and into the tops (or “crowns”) of ponderosas and larches — where fire is much more difficult to control.
“We know from over 100 years of trying that we can’t eliminate fire from these systems,” said Philip Higuera, a professor of fire science at the University of Montana in Missoula and an expert in forest resilience.
He advocates making more extensive use of controlled burns and other ways to eliminate fuel for wildfires across the West. The National Interagency Fire Center said Wednesday that 81 large fires are burning across the nation.
The obstacles to that are extensive. Prescribed fire initiatives are chronically underfunded, and the season for carrying them out is getting shorter, as wildfire cycles start earlier and end later. Firefighters persistently overwhelmed by work in the heat of summer have less time and energy to do preventive work in the off-season.
And then there’s the smoke. Pushing it into populated areas isn’t an option because of possible adverse health effects and air quality regulations, including requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. Beyond all that, residents of neighboring towns are simply sick of smoke year after year.
“Sometimes people are just tired of smoke — after a long fire season, it can be difficult for folks to see smoke in the air,” said Jeff Hayes, the fuels technician for Lolo National Forest. Prescribed fires produce about 18 times less pollution per acre burned than wildfires, according to research by University of Montana chemistry professor Bob Yokelson.
The Forest Service purchased the land in 2007. Since then, it has organized controlled burns, which generally produce less smoke than wildfires.
The impact of smoke is one of the biggest barriers to persuading the public of the benefits of controlled burns. Here, smoke is visible from the controlled burns on May 13, 2019.
While the prescribed fire was over in a day, the Rice Ridge wildfire lasted over a month and burned an area over a thousand times larger. This photo is from Sept. 1, 2017.
Burn bosses are required to conform to national ambient air quality standards when planning prescribed projects.
Tracking and analyzing data on completed prescribed fires is difficult. The 50 states each have a different plan for what works on forested areas, and controlled burns take place across private, state and federal lands. But collaborations such as the Prescribed Fire Incident Reporting System in California, which compiles essential fire data and makes it publicly accessible, could be a potential road map to better inform future prescribed fire initiatives.
Funding for prescribed fire has waned while suppression costs have skyrocketed. The fuel reduction budgets, which include prescribed burn funding, for the Forest Service and Interior Department has averaged $590 million annually over the past 10 years. Suppression appropriations have been around $2.2 billion per year. Meanwhile, actual suppression costs have hit an average of $2.35 billion every year for the past five years for federal agencies. This figure doesn’t even include state agencies like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which has $2.1 billion appropriated for fire suppression this year.
Sustainable logging practices, especially those that are reviewed, initiated and permitted by land agencies, can benefit fire suppression by counteracting the effects of fire exclusion — namely, by clearing underbrush, reducing the likelihood of high-intensity fire and bug kill by removing brush and ladder fuels.
“I say that we only really have two tools in the toolbox to reduce fuels on the landscape: One is logging and the other is prescribed fire,” Carver said. Logging in this context can also mean mechanical or hand thinning with chain saws, to lessen forest density. “So you would go through and mechanically take out some of the high-density trees to the extent you can, and then follow that up with a prescribed burn.”
Indigenous fire practitioners in Seeley Lake — and across North America — have long recognized that fire is medicine for ill forests.
“We see fire as a gift,” said Germaine White, the information and education specialist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). “When visitors and strangers first came, they came from a built environment and a Christian background … and had a very different image about fire than we had.”
That collision of cultures ended tribal use of fire.
Before its prohibition, cultural fire was a way of life for the tribes of the Northern Rockies, usually done on a small scale to improve hunting, camping, gathering or foraging grounds. Such burns produced myriad ecological, cultural and medicinal benefits.
“We want to get people tied back to the fact that [fire] is part of the ecosystem,” said Tony Incashola Jr., forestry director for the CSKT. “It’s not bad for the environment, it’s part of the environment. Everything depends on it, you know — the water quality, the plants, the animal grazing habitat. It’s all been formed naturally throughout the years by fire, and when you remove that, the natural environment changes.” Incashola and his father, Tony Incashola Sr., both have played a large role in developing the tribe’s robust fire program and fire management practices, which heavily reflect the innate value of fire to the tribes of Northwest Montana.
At the core of this ethos is an understanding that everything is connected, and that fire is one element in a web of processes that contributes to healthy forests. Fire is essential for fire-adapted species like fireweed, huckleberries and camas, and strengthens the bark of trees like ponderosa pines and western larch — all of which are native to the mountains surrounding Seeley Lake. And the surge of phosphorus and nitrogen into the soil following a low- or moderate-severity fire encourages insect growth and, thus, healthier populations of animals all the way up in the food chain.
The perspective that the Incasholas, the CSKT and other tribes bring to fire and forest can get lost in the intense bureaucracy of larger land agencies. Still, it’s this mind-set and culture of fire that may usher in a future of coexisting with wildfires.
Allowing tribes to regain some authority to do the burning they’ve historically practiced is one element of this movement. Another will be helping private property owners learn to burn safely through certified burn manager programs. Both of these points reflect the larger movement of Prescribed Burn Associations, which aim to decentralize fire and put it into the hands of community and tribal members rather than overworked and underfunded agency employees.
Above all else, land managers across the West are beginning to acknowledge that traditional knowledge of fire and the lived experiences and perspectives of Indigenous practitioners are invaluable as tribes and agencies alike seek to put more fire on the ground and protect communities from disastrous wildfires in the future.
“We maintain the understanding that fire is valuable,” White said. “Fire is an important tool and those people that continue to make fire today, like our fire management officer and others, are continuing a cultural practice and tradition that’s been going on from the very beginning of time.”
Just as Indigenous tribes like the Kootenai and Salish had developed a relationship with fire for thousands of years before European colonization, encouraging, educating and helping modern communities to establish a similar relationship with fire and the land may help improve the West’s overall resilience to fire.
Jen Hensiek, the ranger for the Forest Service’s Missoula district, sums this collaborative mind-set up well: “Fire knows no boundaries, so we need to think in that same way.”
John Muyskens contributed to this report.