Fire season arrived in Montana this month. As crew leaders set up command centers and assess the flames, they’re seeing the product of previous management decisions that have shaped the forest.
In Northcentral Montana, the July Fire has burned more than 11,000 acres on a mix of private and public land in the thickly timbered mountainsides near Zortman. Earlier this week, the management team overseeing the fire praised area homeowners and the Bureau of Land Management for previous fire mitigation work, saying it’s allowed the hundreds of responding firefighters to fight it aggressively. No homes have been lost in the July Fire.
Rod Boland, president of the Zortman Volunteer Fire Department, says, under normal circumstances, the 50 or so people living in Zortman generally fend for themselves.
"I think it's just the natural way that we live and there's not a lot of thought given to it, we just take care of things as they come up," Boland says.
He says just about every family in Zortman sends a volunteer to the local fire department, and that’s made the community smart about fire preparedness.
"Keeping the grasses, brush particularly, cut back, thinning of trees on private property. those are the main things," he says.
Boland says the town gets a lot of help from the Bureau of Land Management, which owns land surrounding Zortman, and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. He says the BLM thinned much of the forest near town several years ago.
"This was a big push a few years back to prepare the town against this kind of situation," he says, "so it hasn't been discussed as much in the past couple years because it was already all done."
Previous thinning and logging is also helping crews fighting the Lazier Creek 3 and Rogers Mountain Fires in Northwestern Montana.
That’s according to Quinn Carver, a natural resource officer for the Kootenai National Forest . He says much of the land burning is former Plum Creek property, now owned by Weyerhaeuser.
"Most of that is private corporate land out there, so as a rule, if there were product...it would have been thinned out and logged to take it to a more commercially viable forest over time," Carver says. "That would be the commercial model."
Carver says that the history of logging there could help keep the fire from spreading into the canopy and becoming a crown fire, which is much more difficult and dangerous for firefighters. It also means there’s likely a network of old logging roads in the area.
"Old logging roads always help firefighting activities," he says. "They provide a natural place for a fuel break, for firefighters to install a fuel break, and a point to anchor from, that tends to be more safe."
In the nearby Flathead National Forest, fire managers have for years been trying to get in front of fire season by removing dry, dead brush from areas close to where people have built homes, known as the wildland-urban interface, or the WUI.
At the end of May, Keith Van Broeke oversaw a prescribed burn near Lakeside on a 40-acre plot of land that was logged a few years ago.
"I like being able to get out here ahead of time and treat the fuels on our own terms rather than when it's an emergency situation," Van Broeke says.
He says the one-two punch of thinning and prescribed burning is one of the most effective tools fire managers have to prevent wildfire from getting completely out of control.
"You have a lot more control over the safety aspect of things, and having the time to be able to plan makes it a lot easier," Van Broeke says.
This particular management tactic isn’t effective everywhere, says Peter Kolb, a Montana State University Extension Forestry specialist. He says management needs to be site specific.
"We have to really assess every landscape as a unique landscape, and we have to look at what the societal needs from that landscape," says Kolb.
For example, Kolb says prescribed burning can be a useful tool to keep future wildfires more manageable. But it’s really expensive, and for prescribed burns to be effective, they need to be done every few years. That doesn’t make sense in remote wilderness areas, he says, or on private land. Instead, he says managers and the public need to see the nuances of the forest itself.
"And use appropriate management, which ranges from us doing nothing to doing an awful lot of altering that landscape to see what works best for us, and of course to conserve all of the species and natural processes that occur there," says Kolb.
Fire officials in Missoula County are urging homeowners to contact them for free home assessments to help with community wildfire preparedness.