Gary Ferguson

BILLINGS – Montana author Gary Ferguson made a stop at the Billings Public Library last weekend to speak about his new book, “Land on Fire” and share his perspective about this year’s wildfire season.

Over 50,000 fires burned across the United States this summer. In “Land on Fire”, Ferguson explains the factors contributing to the severity of the wildfire season.

“Since the early 1970s, the wildfire season in Montana has grown by about 75 days, both on the front end, because the snowpack is melting earlier and on the back end. It’s staying warmer and drier during the fall,” said Ferguson.

In addition to the longevity of the season, Ferguson explained that they are growing in heat and severity.

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“Sometimes the fires are so hot they will vaporize the vegetation and put like an almost a silicon spray on the soil so water can’t soak in anymore, creating debris slides that create silt in the streams and kill trout. So when you get to a certain size and intensity of fire, a lot of things happen that didn’t use to happen,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson attributed the rampaging fires’ scope to heavy fuel loads.

“Fires are actually quite healthy for a forest. To a limited degree, they get rid of diseases, they burn up the debris that’s fallen from the trees onto the forest floor and keep the floor clean. And in the arid west there’s really nothing that returns that fuel to the soil,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson also wrote in his book about “Megafires,” which is a term used to describe fires that consume more than 100,000 acres in a year. Those fires can change the face of the land.

“About 25 percent of these trees have cones that only open in the presence of fire. In the year after the fires of ’88 there were places in Yellowstone where little seedlings were sprouting at the rate of 100,000 trees per acre. That’s a fabulous adaptation of nature to recover. But for us, who are only here for 70 or 80 or 90 years, we won’t see these landscapes in a way they necessarily were in our lives,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson believes that taking proactive steps to maintain the wildland will help to save homes and livelihoods.

“More than 80 percent of the wildland-urban interface has yet to be developed. That’s where people want to live, understandably. We love nature and we want to be close to it. The problem is building and maintaining your home in a way that makes it resistant to fire,” Ferguson said.

You can help by supporting county commissioners and their efforts to ensure subdivisions are built according to guidelines that help deter loss in a wildfire, as well as taking steps at your own home.

“It’s not usually walls of flames that come out of the forest and take houses. It’s embers that come out of a forest fire, drift over and land on the roof, land on an attic vent,” Ferguson said.

The Red Lodge author also praised efforts by firefighters to contain the blazes.

“This is an elite group of people, saving people’s homes from destruction. We owe them a debt of gratitude”, Ferguson said.

Tools for learning how to make your home safer can be found at this website or by contacting Headwaters Economics.

MTN’s Jenny Fick