Jul 5, 2016

Wildfire in the West has become an uncontrollable force

Idaho Panhandle National Forest
Allison Linville
High Country News
Photo: Mike McMillan, US Forest Service
Photo: Mike McMillan, US Forest Service

For the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, 2015 ranked as the biggest fire year since 1926. Decades ago, a large fire was anything over 500 acres. These days, 500 acres would be considered small, and it’s not unusual anymore to see a fire torch 4,000 acres in just a few hours. Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire – toward fires that no one can understand, predict or “control.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, the five worst years in wildfire history all occurred in the last decade. At one point in 2015, there were 27,000 firefighters trying to put out blazes across the West.


Like everyone working in fire last year, we were exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed.

In Montana, fire managers were watching fire models and using their extensive training and experience to manage fires just as they always had, only to have people on the ground begging them to understand that they were seeing something totally different. 


Given the conditions now piling up — hot summers, long fire seasons, low snowpack, heavy fuel loading, an ignorant public, erratic storms — there is simply not enough education or experience available to help teach a fire manager what to do