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A wall of fire sweeps down the Lolo Creek drainage last August in the area where five homes were burned.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

HAMILTON - A trio of state legislators from the Bitterroot Valley met with the Ravalli County commissioners Tuesday to discuss the Lolo Creek Complex fire, the Larry Creek cleanup operations, what can be done to mitigate the cost of future wildfires and how to compel private landowners to prepare their property for wildfire.

Earlier this fall, state legislators Ron Ehli, Fred Thomas and Nancy Ballance toured the aftermath of the 11,000-acre Lolo Creek Complex wildfire that ripped across the Highway 12 corridor in August and burned several homes. They were accompanied by forestry experts from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and fire managers.

The group also toured Plum Creek timberlands that had been thinned before the fire. The legislators were also given an explanation of how fire lines were built or expanded to stop the fire.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the three lawmakers shared what they learned from that tour with commissioners Suzy Foss, JR Iman, Jeff Burrows and Ron Stoltz.

“This area is substantially changed for the rest of our lives,” Thomas began. “Nearly 80 percent of the fire burned in the first two days, because there were such high winds. And then they built these fire lines, and they controlled it, in essence. What we got out of it was a couple of important things. The Forest Service contacted the state DNRC and then hired a gentleman to run the fire control and the fire efforts. And it cost $12 million total. A lot of money. What I got that was important was the state didn’t run the show, but we were contracted to run that fire by the federal government and the state DNRC. And I think they did a good job by everything I could tell, and their extra efforts to build the fire line.”

Thomas said after the fact, he and other legislators asked if having fire lines built in and updated every 10 years would have been beneficial.

“What we are thinking, is if you have a swath, whether it is a quarter-mile, a half-mile or a mile-wide, where you go up the ridge or through the canyon and selectively harvest the timber and take the little stuff out,” he said. “And you have to go back and clean it up every 10 years. Wherever they had those they had not been updated. Because $12 million is a lot of money. And a little bit of it in your coffers here would make an easy budget time. We gained nothing for $12 million, except no more losses at $12 million. We didn’t get any value. Everything burned, all the wildlife was destroyed in those areas. We didn’t get anything for $12 million except for it was stopped. So that’s what we found.”

Nancy Ballance said that a couple of things struck her.

“One was the clear difference between the U.S. Forest Service and DNRC,” she said. “DNRC’s mission is ‘we stop every fire immediately and abruptly,’ which is not what you hear from the national Forest Service. These are two fires that were driven together by high winds. One of the other things you typically hear is this debate between whether or not road closures make sense in these high fire areas. There is no question that how they accessed those roads played a huge role. The other thing that stood out is much of that land was Plum Creek land, and it was obvious how much care was taken by Plum Creek to protect the streams and the areas around their logging operations. It was very impressive.”

Ballance also said that she saw how much of an imbalance there is between protecting public land and protecting private property.

“And the third thing that struck me was that the first effort was going to save structures,” she said. “So they, the DNRC working with these Forest Service people, will spend millions on saving structures and then there is nothing left for the surrounding land. They did save all but two homes. But working to save the homes was one of their major priorities. But evidently getting the cooperation of the homeowners is a major issue for them, which surprised me. You would think that getting that cooperation would be natural, but that is a continuing fight. Everything from getting them to leave to getting them to clear their property to dipping water out of their ponds is a major fight.”

Ehli said that in his experience as a firefighter, people don’t want to take care of their land until it’s too late.

“Cooperation is a lot better during fire season than it is before and after,” he said. “One of the things we’re struggling with is, you are dealing with fires like this because you are dealing with private, federal and state. And those three have to coordinate together a lot. And Plum Creek and the things they do ahead of time is work well with DNRC to get their lands cleaned up. It’s the small, personal landowners that the DNRC struggles with to get their land cleaned up. They are a lot more congenial when the fire is blowing through than after. Somehow, we have to find as far as cooperation with getting these areas cleaned up. We have to make sure we are all on the same page moving forward.”

Thomas said that a lot of effort went into protecting houses.

“And you would expect that to be the case,” he said. “And we picked up from some of the comments that not everyone in dangerous areas had uniformly taken the steps to protect their houses. Because when the fire is going on it’s too late. This is something you have got to do all the time. You have to reduce the fuel around your house. And what we want, in Bitterroot Valley ridges, is to remove the fuels so the fires are more containable so it doesn’t burn the heck out of everything and destroy all the wildlife that’s out there. It’s a mixed bag, and I don’t know that we have an answer as far as houses being ready for a wildfire. It’s an issue.”

Foss said there are several great programs in place, like Firewise, that allow homeowners to educate themselves on how to prepare their property for wildfire.

“The more we educate and make those programs available within the communities, and that would come through their fire departments, that to me would be excellent,” she said. “You have to have your act together way in advance because fire doesn’t always knock on your door and give you advance warning. That is something we as commissioners could promote, to get that Firewise put on in every single district. That would be something that is not very expensive and the tools are great. We need more public awareness about what is available and getting that cleanup.”

Foss said that there is also the possibility of taking punitive measures against people who don’t take care of their land, but she doesn’t really want to go that route.

“The other thing is if you choose to be that guy who says ‘I bought this property and I don’t care who burns around me, by golly I want every stick to be able to be here,’ ” Foss said. “That person gets fined or gets the full weight of something, and again that is more legislative, and I don’t know if that would fly, but I know in some areas they charge that citizen who isn’t willing to take responsibility in advance of fire but who ends up creating a dangerous situation.”

Ehli said that fining people is a very sensitive issue.

“That’s a real, real touchy issue,” he said. “When you get into private ownership of land it’s got to be voluntarily. You just don’t want to be going there. It doesn’t work so well.”

Foss said she has had people calling her and asking her why the government doesn’t fine people who don’t clear their land of flammable debris.

“I’ve tried to explain it to people, so I thank you for taking it off of me,” she told Ehli.

Thomas said that he is frustrated when environmental groups challenge timber sales that would mitigate the potential fire threat because of the fear of how clearing the land would harm animals.

“And yet, that darned old fire is going to burn everything up and kill a bunch of animals,” he said. “And they don’t care about that. They don’t bring that up. It’s pretty counterintuitive to common sense. What we got out of the fires and cleanup is that more needs to be done so that we don’t have those problems so we protect all these fronts and the beautiful Bitterroot Valley. It’s our land and our valley so let’s pull together on this and get this done. There are too many groups outside this valley that don’t want this done. They want to let it burn and destroy the wildlife. So enough is enough.”

Ehli said that convincing private landowners that the government has their best interests at heart is the biggest hurdle.

“The frustration from the DNRC and the U.S. Forest Service comes from, they will put the time and effort into getting this stuff done but the general public is very paranoid when you start talking about wildland-urban interfaces and things like that,” he said. “That stuff got squashed really quick at the county and local level because it stepped on property rights. There is huge paranoia when you start getting federal agencies involved. How do you take care of that private landowner saying ‘what are you up to county government or state government?”

Burrows said that there is also a reluctance on the part of Forest Service officials to get told how to do their job.

“You have to have a non-threatening, positive plan,” Burrows said. “Because you go to the Forest Service and say ‘coordination’ and watch their backs hunch up. Because I’ve been there and seen it. Say any of those ‘c’ words and it may as well be a four-letter word, because you say any word that starts with ‘c’ and they get defensive, their backs hunch and it turns into a pissing match. I’ve seen it.”

Foss said that the best route is for everyone to cooperate.

“It’s not a win or lose,” she said. “It’s about getting together and talking about it. The people that work at the Forest Service live here too. They don’t want this smoke and fire either. We have to get everyone together at the table to discuss it.”

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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