Fire and the warming West


An Associated Press story that ran recently above the page one fold in Billings and Butte, Mont., didn't qualify even as a brief in Baltimore, Md. No surprise, there. More people live in public housing in Baltimore than populate the states of North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, combined. But it was big news on the High Plains that the White House and House Republicans blocked a $6.5 billion relief package for farmers and ranchers burned out by the sun, wildfires, or in some cases, by both. You can't help but wonder what the outcome would have been had fire blackened the Texas hill country.

Congress' procedural feint around the relief package was a black eye for one of the bill's sponsors, Montana's Sen. Conrad Burns, R, whose bid for re-election needs all the help it can get. On the other hand, he can't lay all that bad karma at the feet of his fellow Republicans. In July, as photographs from the international space station captured a gray blob spreading across all of Big Sky Country from hundreds of out-of-control wildfires, Burns gave a clinic on hoof-in-mouth-disease when he accused exhausted Hotshot fire fighters (who were catching a few winks on the tarmac at the Billings airport) of being lazy good-for-nothing layabouts.

Spectacular fires are nothing new in the West, but the fires that raged across Montana this summer were something special. The upper Great Plains are so dry, and fuel is so abundant, that helicopter pilots fighting the Jungle Fire southeast of Livingston, in September, reported seeing flames jump 500 feet above the tree line. Imagine a ball of fire leaping from the ground over a building 50 stories high.

Congress may have learned its lesson about the cost of natural disasters in another century, on the Mississippi River. In a period of 50 years, farmers living on the flood plains suffered through five 100-year floods. Flood after flood, Congress spent billions of dollars rebuilding homes on flood plains. Taxpayers picked up the tab. Finally, after the devastating flood of 1993, Congress cried "Uncle" and got out of the home-building business, once and for all. We're done. No more. And guess what happened? All those farmers started building new houses on higher ground.

What does the Mississippi have to do with the fires and drought on a million square-miles of high, wide and lonesome? One answer comes from Bob Ruble, an anesthesiologist who has been running a small horse ranch with his wife, outside Billings, Mont., for the past 30 years. A scientist at heart, he is an astute observer of what's been happening to his small patch of paradise.

"It's going to hell, really fast," he says. "It's clear that the endemic vegetation can't take the change we're seeing in climate. The entire region seems to be readjusting to desert-like conditions, very quickly. It's astonishing, actually."

There is no longer any question that the West we know and love is firmly wedged between a rock and a dry place. The most important indicator of just how dry it will be in the coming years is the moisture content of soil, and according to soil scientists, those measurements have not been this low since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Federal climate modelers at NASA say that long-range climate predictions for the upper Great Plains are ugly as they can be. Their models make the Dust Bowl years look like a wet season in the Amazon rainforest.

" knew we were in big trouble when we measured the moisture content of living trees on our property," says Ruble. "It's lower than the moisture level in kiln-dried lumber. We may be past the tipping point."

Before Congress pours billions of dollars into the region for relief from the effects of severe climate change, it would probably like to know if the upper Great Plains region has passed the tipping point. But with lessons from another century fresh in everyone's minds, Congress, for the time being at any rate, seems happy to sit on its hands and hedge its bets.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is the author of Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes and the Trial that Forged a Nation, and he lives and writes in Corvallis, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds