During his career in climate, Dr. David Goodrich was Director of both the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) Office in Washington and the Global Climate Observing System Secretariat in Geneva. He retired in February 2011 as Director of NOAA’s Climate Observation Division. Three months later he rode his bicycle from Cape Henlopen, Delaware to Waldport, Oregon. His first long bicycle ride was in 2000, across Washington state, Idaho, and Montana. This is excerpted from his forthcoming book, A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey Across the US. He worked with Rick Piltz, founder of Climate Science Watch, at USGCRP, and remained friends over the years. This article is dedicated to his memory.
Montana: In the Time of Fire
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water but fire next time
From African-American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep”
In the Montana leg of 2011 cross-country bicycle ride, one aspect of a typical summer was completely missing: fire. Fire has been a frequent companion to Montana summers over the years. In many ways, the northern Rockies are ground zero for climate-driven increases in wildfire. One model projects a 515% increase in northern Rockies burned area for a 1°C. increase in global temperature, making it one of the most vulnerable areas in the West to increased fire. In most of the forested western United States, wildfire area burned is best explained by dry and warm conditions in the seasons immediately preceding the fire (See: National Research Council, 2011. Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 298 pp.). In 2011, I was riding across Montana following a wet winter, and fires were rare. It was not always so. That summer of the millennium, my first long bike ride, was in the time of fire.
In the summer of 2000, on the flight from Denver to Spokane, Washington, a brown haze shaded Idaho and Montana below, with pinpoint plumes of smoke extending out to the horizon. The news had been full of the huge fires in the West. Getting onto the plane with men carrying packs and hardhats, I realized that I’d been swept up in a grand, haphazard armada converging on the northern Rockies. Planes, heavy equipment and people were pouring into the mountains from around the country, with teams from as far away as Australia. I felt a little queasy. Maybe this wasn’t a good time for a bicycle ride across Big Sky country.
The bike box and all the bags arrived in Special Handling at the Spokane airport. I worked up a sweat wrestling the overloaded baggage cart across the concourse. It occurred to me that, if getting across the airport was giving me so much trouble, how I was going to haul this whole mess over the Continental Divide? Wheels and gears would need to perform some magic.
The bike came together in the motel room, and soon I was headed across the wheat fields of eastern Washington, bound for Idaho and Montana. Late summer was harvest time in the great wheat belt known as the Palouse. Raptors circled over fresh cut fields, where rodents were newly deprived of shelter. I had a close encounter with a giant combine, big enough to take up both lanes of the road. He hadn’t seen me. A quick look up into the cab revealed a terrified driver who looked to be about fourteen. Driving lessons start early out here.
I crossed into Idaho. Before long, it wasn’t hard to find signs of fire. Helicopters were buzzing out of small towns carrying “Bambi Buckets” – bright orange sacks of water from the local lakes. The fire crews were camped out at the high school. I stopped in at the local bar and grill, Loonie’s. The sculpture of a Tyrannosaurus in the parking lot had a crazed look. It was welded out of pipe, electrical conduit and pieces of a transmission, with glass shards for teeth. Above the grill, a sign: “We Buy Dead Stock.” Just kidding. I hoped. In the bar, a man dressed in full motorcycle regalia was talking animatedly with a companion in dirty jeans. The biker had long, thinning hair and a Harley jacket, and overflowed the barstool.
“Couldn’t give a job on the fire line to someone from town, but they’re bringing these clowns in from the other side of the world? They finally offer me one, and now the Forest Service wants me to take a loyalty oath. I ain’t taking no goddam loyalty oath.”
I was puzzled over in my corner of the bar. Wait, government employees have to swear to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, right? Okay, guess I’ll just keep my head down over here.
The next day I began my climb up to Lolo Pass, on the Idaho/Montana border. Smoke was always in the air. Before leaving Lowell, the last town on the way up, I called home, just to hear a familiar voice before being out of touch for a few days. Our daughter had just finished breakfast, and catching up on the high school world was oddly comforting. Outside of town, a sign: “Winding Road Next 77 Miles.” And on a store just up the road: “Last Chance.” It appeared that the store had been closed for some years.
It’s a two-day ascent along the Lochsa River, with no towns, scarcely any buildings, and most of the sound consisting of the river, ospreys, and bicycle tires on pavement. Lodgepole pines lined the river; rapids swirled among the rocks. Coming around a bend, I saw the perfect arc of a fly line in the air. A fisherman was standing in the river. I stopped by the shore and got some lunch from my pack.
I waited for him to look up. “Saw the faculty sticker on your car. Are you at the university?”
“What do you teach?”
“Isn’t the term about to start?”
“Still have a couple of days. I’ll take every hour I can get up here.” He paused for another cast. “You have a good ride. There’s no place else like this.”
I rolled into a campground later that afternoon, beat. I was putting up my tent, and the guy at the next campsite asked me if I knew about the hot springs. After a 60-mile climb, I couldn’t imagine anything better. I padded off into the woods, towel on my shoulder. Around a bend in the trail there was a giant steaming pool filled with a dozen naked people. Perhaps it was bashfulness, or maybe a concern about polluting their water, but I waved and kept going. Further up the trail was what appeared to be an empty little pool. A few more steps revealed a lady with her knees drawn up to her chest.
“Uh, sorry, uh, I’ll, uh, just be moving on.”
Finally, I was able to ease into my own personal bathtub further up in the woods. The water was almost too hot to stand, but then aching muscles stretched out on the sandy bottom. Absolutely perfect. I began to think about a ranger’s comment earlier in the day: “The drought’s pushing the big animals down close to the water.” I scanned the forest around me. Was there something out there looking at me like a steak sandwich? I cut the bath short in the gathering dusk.
The next day’s climb brought another smoky morning, with the incline gradually increasing on the approach to Lolo Pass. About five miles in, a simple yellow triangle sign lay in the road, propped up by sandbags: “Forest Fire Ahead.” Around the next bend, World War III. The landscape was blackened across a huge expanse, with occasional smoldering hot spots. Scattered sections of intact forest were in sight. The fire crews had clearly tried to use the road as a firebreak but failed; the burn had swept across the road up the slope to the pass. It had the feel of a battlefield after the battle had been lost.
Another hour of hard climbing through the charred land took me to Lolo Pass, which looked to be a base for the crews. Sitting around a Bambi Bucket were two firefighters relaxing for lunch. They were in hard hats and wore dirty, smoke-stained yellow slickers. One looked like Gary Cooper with ash on his face.
“Any place I can fill up on water here?” I asked.
Gary Cooper pointed up the road. “There’s a food truck right behind that deuce-and-a-half.” Big truck. Two and a half tons. I get it. “Help yourself to lunch while you’re up there.”
I brought a sandwich back by the firefighters and sat down in the dry grass.
“Looks like you guys have had quite a job up here.”
“Yeah, hopefully the big show’s over. We’re just trying to put the little ones out, keep it from spotting. You know, when the little embers get blown on the wind into dry stuff.”
“So you think you’ve got this one under control.”
“Hard to say. In this heat, if the wind picks up in the wrong direction, it all blows up again. It gets up high in the trees and you get a running crown fire, there’s nothing we can do.”
“’Cept run like hell,” said the other one.
“Yeah, if you can run fast enough. Lotsa times you can’t. Seen one crown fire jump across a river just like nothing. But it’s pretty quiet today.” He looked over at the bike. “You should be fine.”
Descending from the pass into Montana, the fires were still all around, and it seemed like each town had its own monster in the hills, waiting for the wind to change. They all had names, some straightforward (“Willie,” because Willie Nelson had sung the night before the fire started) and some incomprehensible (“Nosebag 22”). Late in the afternoon I pulled into a bar in the town of Potomac, reminiscent of home back East. The bartender was a Nez Perce lady talking intently with two guys down by the cooler. She approached as I settled onto the stool.
“What’s on tap?”
“Bud or Moose Drool.”
“Moose Drool. Absolutely.”
She brought the beer and returned to the conversation. I caught little bits of it as she shook her head. “…not good…doesn’t look good up there…”
I tried to get her attention. “Excuse me. Where are you saying doesn’t look good?”
She walked up to the bar and looked me in the eye.
“The way you’re headed.” She turned to go back. “Want another MD?”
“No, that’s okay. I’m good.”
This was Blackfoot River country, the striking landscape portrayed by Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It. But in that fire season Montana was on edge. From my barstool in Potomac, I could see two separate towers of smoke on the horizon. Any little spark, from a motorcycle exhaust to a lightning strike, could set off a new windblown blaze that could take out a town. Montana’s a place where almost everyone is involved with the outdoors, and when much of that outdoors is off limits or with strict no-fires rules, people get cranky. The equivalent of an occupying army was in charge, with fire crews and National Guard units in place in a normally quiet land.
I turned into the Boulder Valley, a red and hazy place like the surface of Mars. A veil of smoke covered the land. My legs had nothing left by dinnertime, and I asked a rancher if I could camp next to his corral. He agreed, with a touch of reluctance and a familiar condition: no fires. Since I couldn’t light my stove in the tinder-dry conditions, dinner was a grand spread of granola bars. That night the wind blew the smoke away and the sky exploded in stars. The earth turned toward Sagittarius and the center of the galaxy, the brightest part of the Milky Way. Down the valley, only four lights were visible as far as I could see. I fell asleep listening to coyotes in the draw.
The next morning, I woke to the sound of water on the rain fly. The rancher’s dog was peeing on my tent. The day could only get better. As I was washing and packing the tent, a couple of cowboys were getting ready for a rodeo that day. They were in chaps and I was in bicycle shorts. They smirked at my outfit. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to wear spandex.
I rode out onto the mesa country that summer and left the forests and the fires behind. I had originally planned to turn south and ride through the Bitterroot Valley of Montana that summer. It’s one of Montana’s most beautiful places, with many luxury summer homes. My plans changed after I ran into a group of cyclists at the entrance to the Bitterroot. The lead cyclist, lean and dusty with a multiple day beard, was riding a fine blue Trek 520 just like mine, rigged out with panniers. We stopped on the roadside.
“You folks on a long tour?” I asked.
“TransAm,” he said. “This last patch was a little dicey.”
“Well, they let us through the Bitterroot, but it was a near thing. The fires are getting down near the road. You never really see them, but the smoke is everywhere. It gets tough sucking all that stuff in. But at least I got the souvenir.”
He pulled out an “I Survived the Bitterroot Firestorm 2000” t-shirt.
“You know, I just might find myself another route,” I said.
When I came back across Montana from the east in 2011, the Bitterroot Valley was on my list of places to ride. With the heavy snowpack, the 2011 fire season had been tame. What was evident was how long the forest takes to recover. The 2000 fire had taken out about a fifth of the Bitterroot forest. Blackened hillsides with tiny trees remained after eleven years. Without reforestation efforts, it could take up to 30 years for seed to find its way back into a dry forest site (See: P. Backus, 2010. “Out of the ashes of 2000, Sula forest is reborn,” Missoula, MT: Missoulian September 18, 2010). With just a few months of growing season each year in the northern Rockies, regrowth is measured in decades.
Fire has been in these mountains as long as there have been forests, and some species have even evolved to disperse seeds during fire. But things are different now. The science indicates that climate change is increasing the vulnerability of forests to tree mortality through fire, insect infestations, drought, and diseases. Western U.S. forests are particularly susceptible to increased wildfire and insect outbreaks. Winters don’t get as cold now, and damaging insect larvae can survive in great numbers to the spring. This is why the mountain pine beetle has killed over 40 million acres of trees in the US and Canada. Paradoxically, beetle-killed forests don’t necessarily burn that well. A dry, live forest with needles and plenty of understory fuel is more flammable.
Climate change is the background music for growth of fire in the West. Earlier onset of spring, reduced snowpack and higher temperatures are the major factors leading to increased wildfire. According to the Forest Service, the fire season is now 78 days longer than in 1970 (See: US Forest Service, 2015: The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, 16 pp.). From 1955 to 2015, snowpack decreased by an average of 23% over measurement sites in the West. And like almost everywhere else in the world, it’s hotter; the vanishing glaciers in nearby Glacier National Park are an often-cited case study in warming. It’s all led to a bigger, and growing, fire problem in the West.
Climate is surely not the only reason for the growth of fire in the West. A policy of putting out all fires, first instituted in 1910, led to a long-term increase in flammable undergrowth in forest where fire is part of the natural order. The Yellowstone firestorm of 1988 underlined the problem and helped institute a change in the fire suppression policy. But fire suppression by management is found in many studies to explain much less of the total area burned than does the variability in weather and climate (See: National Research Council, 2011. Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 298 pp.).
Controlling that fire has come to be a very expensive proposition. The armadas heading into the fire zones that I saw in 2000 are being repeated on nearly an annual basis. At this writing in 2015, firefighting is consuming $1.2 billion, now over 50% of the Forest Service’s budget (See: US Forest Service, 2015: The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, 16 pp.). Much of the effort is devoted to defending the homes, often second homes, of people who have built on the boundaries between forests and towns, in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface – often places where fire can be expected. There’s an analog to what’s happened on the coast. People continue to build homes (often second homes) and large structures (see Miami Beach towers) on the beach, subsidized by Federal flood insurance and oblivious to sea level rise. They then ask the government to fund “beach nourishment” and seawalls to protect against the inevitable, and ask to be made whole when the inevitable happens. The role of the public sector and taxpayers, in each place, is to subsidize unwise behavior.
In the western forest, there are measures that people can take to protect their homes, like installing fire-resistant roofs and maintaining 30 feet of brush-free area around structures. Most haven’t made these preparations and must rely on firefighters to protect their homes. In many of the huge fires in the West, that simply isn’t possible. Regardless, even if a home survives a fire, much of the reason for building there – the forest – will be gone.
Earlier in the 2011 ride, I had ridden into the Rockies at Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins. Fire came to the canyon the next summer. The huge High Park Fire took out hundreds of homes, with fire funneling up over the canyon walls. In June 2012, it was all the Denver news stations could talk about. It would be the most destructive fire in Colorado history, until two weeks later, when the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed half again as many homes near Colorado Springs. They surely won’t be the last ones. Large fires, 10,000 acres or more, are about seven times more common in the US than forty years ago.
No more water, but fire next time.