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By John Dowd 

Woods Journal

Be responsible with fires in the wilderness


I have always been an explorer. I spend every waking free minute I have going into the wilderness, driving old dirt roads and investigating anywhere I haven't already been. During these travels I get the opportunity to see a lot of country. Two weekends ago I spent a large portion of my day up and down several Forest Service roads around Thompson Falls. What I saw disheartened me and frankly made me mad.

Within just an hour Sunday afternoon, I saw at least four fire pits still smoking. Now, these were not recently out and smoking. These were full blaze, flames licking the air burning fires. Several campers departed without dousing their fires. Several of these (I know because I read license plates as I drove in Sunday morning) were out-of-state plates.

The state of Montana, and most of the Rocky Mountain west, are of a dry climate that is volatile for forest fires. In 2020, Montana had 2,433 wildfires, which ranked it fourth in the top 10 states with the most fires in the United States by the National Interagency Fire Center. According to the U.S. National Park Service, nearly 90% of all forest fires are caused by humans.

I spent a lot of time in the southeast, where the climate is the exact opposite. Humid weather year-round with hot muggy days for most of the year. Even the locals there who hike and camp know that it is common courtesy to put the fire out. I have been camping there on as hot and dry a day as the south can achieve and witnessed wood still so wet from the ambient humidity that fire would not light easily, even with the help of gasoline. Montana's wettest day, on the other hand, can require only a spark to burn millions of acres.

Fires must always be put out, and not just by pouring the morning's coffee on them. In northwestern forests especially, fires must be drowned completely. All of the heat from a fire is kept in the coals underneath. This means that if there are still logs on top of the fire (as there were in all four fires I saw) the water will absorb into the wood and will evaporate before any of the fire's heart is affected. After a light wind, even in the case of a fire encased firmly in a good ring of stones, cinders can be lifted and swept into the grass or the thing can blaze up again. All four of the fires I saw were within a few feet of a creek, flowing with water. If those campers had taken just an extra two minutes, they could have eliminated all possibility of spread.

There is a reason Montana is so strict with its fire danger signs. It is important for everyone to watch out. Parties traveling into the woods must remember to never leave a fire unattended, never pack up camp and leave the fire going and never assume the fire will not blaze back up. The common credo for wildfire prevention is to drown, stir and feel. That means pour enough water into the fire to float the titanic, then stir the ash-mud until there is no heat to be felt by the human hand.

For Sanders County locals, it is important to keep an eye out for campfires that have not been put out whenever out in the woods. It is our responsibility as custodians of the land. Any possible wildfires can be reported through 911. For those interested in following wildfire reports in the county, the Sanders County Wildland Fire Information page on Facebook posts regular updates on wildfire situations in the county.

Reach John at [email protected]


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