Forest Service officials say prescribed burns are for the best in long run

HAMILTON - When smoke filled the Bitterroot Valley from Forest Service-prescribed burns last summer, the phones at the forest supervisor's and county health offices rang hot.

But when a thick blanket of smoke covers the valley during a wildfire, the Forest Service fields few if any complaints, said Jack Kirkendall, the Bitterroot National Forest's fire management officer.

"We're seen as protecting things out there," he said. "Fighting it is seen as fighting something bad."

Efforts to suppress an uncontrolled blaze cost from $450 to $1,000 per acre. The cost of controlled burns is only about $65 per acre, but the Forest Service is achieving the same goal and more, he said. Firefighters are protecting the forest and homes built on the urban interface, while also providing long-term benefits to the forest ecosystem.

"Yet we're seen as doing something different," he said. "And we get a different response."

Kirkendall blames that skewed view partly on years of the public misinterpreting Smokey Bear's message to mean all fire is bad. But the friendly bruin's real goal, he said, was to prevent humans from carelessly or negligently igniting forest fires that burn out of control.

So how then does the Forest Service proceed with a prescribed burn program that is expected to expand from the 6,700-acre target this year to a 10,000-acre target set for 2001 without the public's distaste for smoke snuffing them out?

"Education is certainly one of the keys," Kirkendall said.

The agency will continue to provide public information about when burns will occur and how long they will last. It also will explain the tradeoffs between applying prescribed burns and suppressing wildfires.

"A lot of it is proving ourselves to the public and developing a track record of success," he said.

In the 1970s, fire researchers began studying fire from a management - not just control - standpoint. Scientists took an even more serious look at how natural fire plays a role in shaping ecosystems after the intense 1988 fire season, when wildfires ignited national forests across the West and in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone has since provided a venue to watch how wildlife benefited from the burn.

In the early 1990s, the national forest policy began to shift from just protecting and producing a timber resource to managing a whole ecosystem.

"Diversity is the key to a healthy ecosystem and fire historically provided that," he said.

Thinning and logging are still needed in combination with burns, Kirkendall said, because the forest has missed at least three natural burn cycles over the past 80 years. Forests are now dense with ground cover and trees like Douglas fir that provide a "ladder" for fire to reach the crowns of ponderosa pines, he said.

Kirkendall doesn't expect forest officials will ever burn more than 10,000 to 12,000 acres a year on the Bitterroot National Forest's 1.6 million acres. The agency is limited by funds and staff and also recognizes the smoke impacts on valley residents.

Fire will be applied where the agency feels it is most needed and where it can get the "biggest bang for the buck," he said. The ecosystem of the lower elevation ponderosa pine forest is the most at risk. It also is closest to private property.

"It's one area where we can make the most difference," he said.

The 10,000-acre-per-year target should be enough, he said, if you look how much effect that can have over 20 years.

"It took us 80 years to get where we are now with fire exclusion," he said. "It's going to take a long time to get where we think we should be."

Jake Kammerer, Ravalli County health officer, said he doesn't think annual burns of 10,000 acres will cause major problems if the Forest Service spreads them out and continues working closely with the National Weather Service.

"We sometimes have poor exhausting of air in the valley but that doesn't necessarily mean air quality is a problem," he said. "There haven't really been any public health risks here due to smoke."

Kammerer's office still fields lots of

phone calls during burn season. Most are from people upset about the impact prescribed burns have on the valley's aesthetics - folks complaining they can't see the mountains.

Kammerer's reply to them is, "I understand that, but that's not a public health risk." "We usually don't get calls from asthmatics, respiratory therapists or doctors," he said.

So far this year, officials have fielded few complaints about smoke. Last year's 1,700-acre Big Creek burn southwest of Stevensville generated more complaints because the weather changed unexpectedly and trapped the smoke in the valley, along with dust that a dry front carried in from Canadian agricultural fields.

But it was the wildfires of last September that created the worst air quality conditions Kammerer had seen in the Bitterroot Valley in more than 20 years. Fires across western Montana and in surrounding states combined to create particulate readings of 120 micrograms per cubic meter, far above the limit of 80 micrograms per cubic meter that triggers a pollution alert.

A reading of 150 micrograms per cubic meter would trigger a stay-indoors alert, Kammerer said.

Bruce Windhorst, fire management officer on the Stevensville Ranger District, said the Forest Service did most of its prescribed burns in one area in 1998, whereas in 1999 it used a different strategy of burning smaller tracts and returning to an area several times.

The agency won't always be able to apply that strategy, he said, but he thinks it worked well this year in reducing smoke impacts and still achieved project goals.

Air quality readings and the National Weather Service's smoke dispersion index help guide the Forest Service in whether to proceed with a burn, he said.

The burn location also plays into decision making because of how the valley's population is dispersed and how winds blow from west to east through the Bitterroot Mountain canyons.

"Burning 500 to 1,000 acres on the west side of the valley will have more of an impact on people than burning 2,500 on the east side," he said.

The Forest Service can meet its burn targets only if air quality, relative humidity, temperature, wind and the smoke-dispersion index all align often enough.

"It's all dependent on conditions," Windhorst said.

Meanwhile, Stevensville District Ranger Nan Christianson said the Forest Service will try to minimize impact on people.

She agrees with Kirkendall that education is critical. She said she wants to keep the communication lines open to the public, although she admits it's difficult to know where to even begin the conversation since everyone has such varied viewpoints about the agency's burn program and its impacts on them.

There is the caller who lives on the valley floor, who doesn't care for all the smoke and doesn't care if the west side homes on the Forest Service boundary burn up because he thinks those folks were arrogant to build there in the first place.

There's the person who understands the scientific reasoning and concerns for public and firefighter safety, but he still doesn't like prescribed burning because of smoke.

And there are callers who support the program.

"We need to have as broad a spectrum of understanding as there are people here," he said.

But it's most painstaking to respond to residents who suffer from smoke.

"We try to alert them in advance," she said. "And we make sure that we don't do anything to the air quality that is unacceptable."

Christianson encourages public input.

"The communication should be never-ending," she said. "I'd be more concerned if people were apathetic and didn't care what we did with such an incredible asset as the forests we have here."

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