Friend & Foe

Wildfire’s two-sided role in the landscape

The Reynolds Creek Fire near St. Mary Lake. Greg Lindstrom

Wildfires have played a prominent role in transforming the landscape of Glacier National Park throughout its 106-year history.

The barren landscape along Lake McDonald, remnants of the 2003 Robert Fire, which burned 57,570 acres in one summer, is perhaps the most visible example of fire’s powerful force and lasting effect. The fire was one of six massive blazes that burned more than 136,000 acres in Glacier that year, more than 13 percent of the preserve’s 1 million acres.

The fires of 2003 are only one chapter in the park’s long history shaped by fire and ash.

Last season’s intense firestorm illustrated a pivotal moment for the nation’s strategy of addressing fires on the landscape, especially in national parks and wilderness areas.

The Reynolds Creek Fire in the St. Mary region. Greg Lindstrom
The Reynolds Creek Fire in the St. Mary region. Greg Lindstrom

Fires in Glacier Park required hundreds of resources that relentlessly attacked blazes that forced evacuations and disrupted the heart of tourism season.

Since the 1960s, the National Park Service has followed a policy of managing its sites as “vignettes of primitive America.” A major shift occurred in the agency’s approach to fire, from suppressing all blazes to managing fire as a natural element in the landscape. This included the permitted use of prescribed burning and allowing lightning fires to burn naturally, unless human safety or cultural resources became threatened.

Yet, in an era defined by extreme fire behavior, the policy of “let it burn” appears more complicated than ever. Fire managers are under increasing pressure from communities such as the Flathead Valley that depend on the tourism season in Glacier National Park as the main economic driver. There is also the increased population of homes on the outskirts of national parks and wildernesses, creating a crowded wildland urban interface that raises safety concerns whenever a blaze breaks out.

“Climate change, beetle kill, drought conditions, lower snowpack — that is all definitely making it tougher to decide when and where to allow fires to burn,” Dan Buckley, fire director for the National Park Service, said. “Plus the fact that there are more homes and buildings in the wildland urban interface — these incidents are more complex for sure.”

Buckley said the agency relies on local managers, such as park superintendents, to decide the level of suppression whenever a fire breaks out.

Jeff Mow, superintendent in Glacier Park, told attendees at a public meeting in West Glacier last year that the effects of climate change could change the way agencies such as the Park Service respond to blazes.

“I’m not sure it changes the way we fight wildfires, but our windows of opportunity have changed,” he said. “In some cases, our opportunities to use fire the way we use it naturally aren’t going to present themselves quite the same way.”

The Reynolds Creek Fire near St. Mary Lake. Greg Lindstrom
The Reynolds Creek Fire near St. Mary Lake. Greg Lindstrom

The National Park Service manages 408 sites and more than 84 million acres across the U.S. In fiscal year 2015, the agency had 195 unplanned ignitions that burned 98,540 acres. In 2014, 72,133 acres burned; in 2013, 209,195 acres were scorched; and in 2012, 146,007 acres burned.

In 2014, over 75,000 acres were treated through prescribed burns in the wildland urban interface of national parks and 2,471 were treated in non-wildand urban interface lands.

Peter Kolb, an associate professor of forest ecology and management at the University of Montana, said federal agencies such as the NPS could have to alter their strategies for managing fires in the coming years due to America’s fire conditions.

“We went from a full control, full suppression philosophy to now letting nature do its thing. We’re finding that if we let nature do its own thing, it’s not always beneficial to us,” Kolb said. “How do we meld the two philosophies together? Glacier National Park is one of those places where we want to leave nature to its own devices. But at the same time, without any mitigation, it may not provide us with the habitat that we’re looking for.”

For centuries, wildfire has played a prominent and important role in the landscape, Kolb said. But the expansion of civilization around these forested areas — and the latest extreme fire conditions that persist across the West — are punctuating the need for evaluating how to coexist with fire.

“How can we be a benign steward to the landscape and keep what we call the natural process, but not let the same process destroy what we cherish?” Kolb said. “That’s a difficult medium to find.”