Clarkston Fires

In this Chronicle file photo, the Horseshoe fire burns east of Clarkston, Mont. New research suggests the world’s response to wildfires that tear through towns and housing developments may need to change.

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A warming world means longer fire seasons, and longer fire seasons mean more chances of a wildfire coming to a forest near you.

A new paper suggests people need to begin thinking differently about what that means and how they’ll live with wildfire into the future.

The paper, published in Nature Sustainability, suggests the world’s response to wildfires that tear through towns and housing developments may need to change, calling for more proactive planning for fires and thinking twice before rebuilding in the same place after a wildfire. It also makes the case for allowing some fires to burn and using prescribed fire more often to clear out heavy fuel loads that can make for dangerous wildfire conditions.

The lead author is Dave McWethy, an assistant professor in earth science at Montana State University. McWethy said people will need to rethink their relationship with wildfire under climate change and begin expecting more fires.

“We can’t respond to repeated damaging wildfires by building in the same way and living on the landscape the same way we have in the past,” McWethy said.

This research comes after the United States’ two most expensive wildfire seasons and some large and deadly fires in California. And it comes as scientists are predicting climate change will increase fire activity and lead to more frequent extreme fire years.

McWethy said fire policy over the last 100 years or so has centered on controlling fires, leading to a buildup of fuel in the nation’s forests. He said working to control every fire into the future won’t be a realistic prospect, so people who live in the West have to come to terms with living with fire.

“We have to acknowledge that fire is inevitable,” McWethy said.

The paper looks at the concept of “social-ecological resilience” to wildfires — mainly how people and societal institutions respond to fires. It examines a few examples of places that have dealt with big fires and how they’ve responded, and it discusses three types of resilience: basic, adaptive and transformative.

Basic resilience means people try to return to pre-fire conditions after a blaze, like rebuilding homes lost to a fire or helping an ecosystem return to its pre-fire self. The paper points to the response to Yellowstone National Park’s landmark 1988 fire season as an example of this idea. The ecosystem itself bounced back naturally, evidenced by the recovery of lodgepole pine trees in many areas.

But the paper also said the number of places where returning to pre-fire conditions makes sense or is even possible is diminishing. Even Yellowstone is an example of that, as recent research shows the park’s forests may have a tougher time regrowing after fire in the future.

Adaptive resilience means changing human behavior after a fire, such as people clearing fuels from their property or governments only allowing development where fire fuels aren’t abundant. Transformative resilience consists of using those practices at a large enough scale to protect a region against a big fire — like if Bozeman, Three Forks and Livingston worked together on some fire adaptation strategies.

Some groups are advancing these sorts of ideas, like the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, which works across the nation to help people “safely co-exist with wildland fire.” The organization has an arm in Montana, which held a launch workshop in Bozeman earlier this year.

While the high profile fires of the last few years have happened elsewhere, McWethy hopes his paper makes people more aware that big fires can happen here, too. Bozeman has been spared the last several fire seasons, but fires have forced evacuations in places like the Bitterroot Valley and Seeley Lake, and McWethy said the same could happen here.

“We’re kind of rolling the dice every year on where these big fires are going to occur, and one will eventually hit the Bozeman area,” he said. “If people aren’t ready, it can be really bad.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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