Summer wildfires: Montana’s worst season
This Sept. 2, 2020, file photo shows a wildfire burning southeast of Roundup near Klein, Mont. (Mike Clark/Billings Gazette via AP)
| July 25, 2021 12:00 AM
Montanans used to joke that we had two distinct seasons: winter and road construction.
Now we have three: winter, road construction and fire season, the latter of which is punctuated by searing temperatures and long dry spells brought on by a never-ending high-pressure system that stokes smoky weather and obscures the iconic Big Sky. Tourists who come here expecting the advertised bluebird skies are quickly disappointed by the amorphous haze that hides the state’s towering peaks and expansive great plains.
Now, like winter, we dread our seemingly endless summer fire season and the malaise that represses Montanans’ natural impulse to go outside, where land, sky and water always beckon.
This season is fueled by not only bone-dry timber and ground vegetation but by anxiety, worry, and a fire-industrial complex that is spread very thinly across the country, despite the billions of dollars spent in the sector.
We awake with grit in our eyes, ash on our decks, and a hoarse throat that reminds us that nothing has changed in weeks and the sky is still opaque, like a classic Russell Chatham canvas framed by green conifers in the foreground and indistinguishable mountains in the background.
Our weather forecasts include frequent updates on fire-containment percentages as well as air-quality reports, which range from moderate to unhealthy to hazardous.
TV weather forecasters spout a familiar forecast refrain: hot, dry and smoky. Forever, it seems.
Our firefighter friends suddenly disappear from our regular gatherings and are dispatched around the state and country to fight fires for weeks at a time. Their orders came a month earlier than normal in what many are predicting to be a historic fire season during a historic drought and hot spell during a historic health pandemic.
We used to love summer and its deep, clear skies, long, luxurious days and lingering dusks at our northern latitude, and the freedom and ability to explore Montana’s natural heritage — the small creeks and big rivers, nearby mountainsides, and the coulees and ravines that divide the rolling plains of the eastern part of our state like a math problem.
But let’s face it — summer’s over.
These history-making events don’t preclude some from practicing politics: Gov. Greg Gianforte, adhering to his Republican orthodox ideology, this summer yanked the Last Best (Smoky) Place out of a coalition of two dozen states working together to fight climate change. Free-market innovation will take care of it, not government regulation and mandates, his spokesperson said.
But, ironically, that didn’t stop the governor from asking for federal help in dealing with the extreme drought: days after pulling out of the coalition, the governor requested that Uncle Sam -- the U.S. Agriculture Department -- declare a drought emergency so Montana could qualify for federal relief dollars.
On the other side of the Continental Divide, Dr. Steven Running, a Nobel laureate at the University of Montana, says matter-of-factly on TV that this kind of weather was predicted decades ago when climate scientists started reviewing the data and raised an alarm: weather will become more extreme.
It seems that most people aren’t paying attention, or are willfully ignorant. But Running still preaches the gospel despite what the climate-denying apostates say.
“We’re seeing less of those cold extremes, and more of these hot extremes, right in our own weather statistics and of course that’s what the climate models forecast,” Running told MTN News.
I’ll bet on Running, not because he’s a scientist but because he doesn’t have a log in this firefight.
Meanwhile, I’ll clean up the downed timber and ladder limbs on the trees around our home, and support the firefighters who valiantly protect our lives, liberty and the pursuit of a (short) carefree summer in a world that is only getting hotter and worse for our children, who wonder why we’re letting our world go up in smoke.
— Bill Lombardi is former communications director for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. He lives in Seeley Lake and Helena.