Idaho rancher explaining devastation following Soda Fire. Photo via KTVB
Idaho rancher explaining devastation following Soda Fire. Photo via KTVB

During the summer of 2015, weather in the Northwest U.S. has been dominated by fire season. While the eastern half of the country experienced a wet and cold winter this year, we were well above average on temperatures and dry during a season when most of our annual moisture arrives in the form of snow pack. The cascading effects have been felt during the summer months as most of our crop moisture arrives in the form of irrigation (we receive 9-12 inches of annual moisture in Helena) and the snow pack keeps things fed in higher elevation forests. This year, the snow pack wasn’t there, spring rain brought flush growth, and now we have fires. Big fires.

Wildfires aren’t new to this region. It’s a natural part of the rangeland ecology to assist with healthy regrowth of forests and clearing of underbrush. Some plants are even dependent of fire for survival and sprouting of new seeds. But in recent years, the fires have been big and have continually taken a larger portion of our public funds to fight these fires and prevent homes, in some cases entire towns, from burning to the ground. So far in 2015, our federal government has spent $1 billion fighting fires and the West is still burning.

It’s easy to complain about the smoke that has dominated our skies during the past month. Air quality in Montana has been worse than portions of China on certain days, rating very unhealthy and hazardous with visibility less than a mile. And that’s without fires anywhere close to town for us in Helena. But these fires are destructive and their intensity is catastrophic for U.S. and Canadian forces fighting them.

Many of these fires are burning on public lands – both Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service – along with adjacent private property, both used for grazing by ranchers. Livestock producers depend on these lands in the region because much of the forage availability in warm seasons is found at higher elevations – in forest ground. The loss from fires is more than just a reduction in forages and feed for these ranchers, often it includes a loss of livestock that could not be evacuated quickly enough.

The Boise and Spokane media outlets have been covering these stories all summer. One example of the loss that’s felt can be seen in the rancher’s eyes and heard in his voice after the 279,000+ acre Idaho Soda Fire swept through his cattle herd. Watch this video from KTVB in Boise following the Soda Fire. Unfortunately, stories like this can be heard from all states where major fires are burning – Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and California.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 44,129 fires burning over 8,995,000 acres this year, 5,174,000 acres in Alaska. Every week, there are reports of new fires across the state.

We’ve pulled in fire resources and teams from Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Zealand and Australia to help fight these fires. We’re looking for rain and early season snow to put these things out.

We saw the fire danger coming. We have the tools, resources and knowledge to prevent fires of this magnitude, and we weren’t able to do much about it. More on that in my next post.