As former Montana smokejumpers we are increasingly alarmed by the severity, size, and expense of wildfires. The weather this year in Montana might give false hope to those who think weather and climate are the same. But climate is about trends and scientists say that those trends are proving what our guts have told us for a long time: Climate change is an increasing problem for firefighters who are facing increasing risks as a result.

Since the 1980s, Montana’s wildfire season increased by two months while average global temperatures have steadily trended upward. Climate researcher Steve Running has summarized the data this way: “Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.”

479 homes destroyed

Drought caused by warming temperatures exacerbated the recent pine beetle infestation, which is 10 times larger than any previously recorded. Millions of dead trees provide more fuel for fires and create more risk for those on the front lines.

Roughly 24,000 wildfires have burned over 5.6 million acres in Montana since 2000. Already this year wildfires in drought-stricken Washington, Oregon, and California have consumed hundreds of square miles and 479 homes. One fire, in the backyard of the North Cascade Smokejumper Base, wiped out power lines, destroyed 300 homes, jumped rivers and highways and caused a large area to be evacuated. That could happen in Montana.

As Montana’s population grows, more homes are being built in high-risk wildfire areas. Fighting fires near structures precludes the use of tactics such as back fires and burnouts that starve a fire of fuel. This raises costs, increases the chance of uncontrolled wildfires, and threatens lives. Near term we can help prevent fire damage with defensible space; ultimately we must mitigate climate change.

Firefighters put their safety on the line every time they respond to fires. Between 1990 and 2006, 310 people died in U.S. wildland fire operations, including 14 Montanans and several smokejumpers from Montana and Idaho. Last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona exploded in heavy, drought-desiccated fuels, burning up much of the town of Yarnell and a highly trained 19-person interagency hotshot crew, a devastating loss which included one firefighter from Montana. We learned many lessons from the Mann Gulch fire that tragically took the lives of 13 smokejumpers in 1949. Despite those lessons, better technology, and advanced safety measures, fire danger is increasing.

Taxpayer fire costs

In the last five years, Montana estimates it spent over $93 million fighting wildfires – with more than $57 million in 2013 alone. The U.S. Forest Service now spends 40 percent of its budget on fire suppression, up from 13 percent in 1991. The first year the Forest Service spent over $1 billion on fire suppression was 2000 and it has spent nearly that much every year since. In comparison, the federal government spent about one-third that much each year in the late 1980s.

The cost of fires far exceeds suppression costs alone. The 2000 Canyon Ferry Fires cost $9.5 million to suppress, but property loss, rehabilitation, and indirect costs approximately doubled that. Wildfires can devastate watersheds and water quality. Without trees and vegetation, areas are prone to erosion, flooding, mudslides, and invasive species.

We know that many Montanans share our concerns about rising fire danger. While aggressive intervention in wildfires will always be needed, we also need prevention strategies – and that means dealing with climate change. Preventing climate change isn’t possible, but limiting climate change is.

Montana has abundant clean energy resources such as wind and solar power that can provide significant statewide economic benefits. We need prevention strategies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to decrease carbon pollution from the largest point sources — coal-fired power plants. We can create good-paying jobs in clean energy. We can protect our climate and our wildlands, and we can save lives, property, and jobs in doing so.

Paul Johnson, of Montana City, collaborated on this commentary with these other former smokejumpers: Phil Difani, Hamilton; Harold Hoem, Missoula; Jim Kitchen, Bozeman; Rod McIver, Kalispell; Mike Oehlerich, Whitefish; Brad Sauer, Big Timber; and Jim Sweaney, Gardiner.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.