As the Rice Ridge fire pressed down upon us and I prepared to evacuate, my belongings felt like a burden. Protecting them was clearly not worth the loss of someone’s life. I couldn’t help but wish that our culture lived on the land differently.
When tribal people inhabited the West they co-existed with fires. Their homes were lightweight and portable so tribes could easily move their few possessions if needed. No one’s life was put at risk fighting fires.
Because fires cycled through frequently they improved habitats rather than devastating them by clearing out undergrowth and fertilizing the soil with ash. Many tribes intentionally set fires to increase browse for elk and deer, regrowth of quality basket-making materials such as beargrass and willows, and enhance productivity of essential foods such as huckleberries.
As European culture moved into the West its stationary lifestyle redefined the meaning of fire. Permanent structures and denser populations meant fire brought a threat rather than a healthy cleansing, and the era of fire suppression began. It seemed like the right thing to do and we were good at it. By the 1960s we had successfully reduced the annual number of burned acres from 30 million to 5 million.
But after years of suppressing fires we now understand forests have gotten too thick and fires burn too hot. Sadly, there is no easy way to thin our forests back down to less incendiary conditions. Fuel mitigation projects help, but not enough. Catastrophic fires will continue to threaten firefighters and towns, and scorch habitats.
We have lost two young men to Montana fires this season yet still the firefighters come. Their courage leaves me speechless. I, for one, wish our culture was not built around permanence. I wish our forests weren’t getting so ravaged. I wish we could bring those firefighters back to life.
I know I speak on behalf of all Seeley Lake residents in expressing my deepest regrets and appreciation to every firefighter here. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.