SEELEY LAKE — We pause in the truck as the red fox crosses snow-covered Dunham Creek Road in front of us. It turns to stare boldly as we rumble past an area where the 2017 Rice Ridge fire’s rolling flaming front charred the trees and devoured shrubs, forbs and grasses.
That glimpse of wildlife doesn’t prepare us for the mountain lion that strides across the road next, showing little interest in our journey.
“Wow. He had to be — what, 125, 130 pounds?” Quinn Carver, a wildlife biologist, says in awe. Today, he’s behind the wheel as the ranger for the Lolo National Forest’s Seeley Lake District, explaining the work undertaken in the two years after the wildfire.
But even Carver can’t contain his excitement at seeing the cougar.
“Yeah, I ordered it up for you,” Carver tells his passengers with a broad grin. “Now we can look for some elk.”
The big cat slips back into the woods, whose black trunks stand in stark contrast to the freshly fallen white snow. Most of these trees will remain in place until felled by gravity rather than a logger’s saw.
Ironically, this portion of the forest was expected to be part of the long-planned 61,300-acre Center Horse landscape improvement project, which included logging on about 9,100 acres. But only days before the paperwork authorizing the work was signed, the Rice Ridge fire started.
Eventually, the fiery furnace consumed trees, shrubs and grasses across 160,000 acres in what was one of the worst fire seasons in recent history on the 2 million-acre Lolo National Forest, which had 226,286 acres burned by 10 separate fires.
The Center Horse project was shelved, and the current plan calls for salvage sales on only 1,829 acres instead as part of the Rice Crispy, Dark Horse, Left Mule and Fried Morrell projects.
“From the industry perspective, mills always want more logs. Particularly where fires are so large and take so much out of the mix,” Carver said earlier in his office. “But when you start talking salvage, you’re talking of prioritization of what we can get to quickly because the value of the timber falls off quickly.
“There’s the economic piece — the value of the wood and the value to extract it. There’s the question of whether there’s roads or no roads. You have the BMPs, or best management practices, and you have to balance wildlife concerns and fisheries concerns. That all comes into sway when making a final decision.”
Only 1.7% of the acres that burned on the Rice Ridge fire will have timber removed for mills. And none of the trees burned in the other major 2017 blaze on the Lolo National Forest — the 53,900-acre Lolo Peak fire – will be logged.
“Something as simple as staffing capacity was a big driver for that one,” said Kurt Wetzstein, the Lolo forest silviculturist. “And a lot of that (Lolo Peak fire) burned in roadless areas, or it wasn’t part of the forest plan for timber production. There could have been an opportunity for salvage, but in a lot of areas, they had small trees and it was difficult to access.
“Anything smaller than 8 inches (in diameter) has no value, and two years out they’ve deteriorated rapidly. And with the ground disturbance, it just didn’t make sense.”
Overall, of the 226,286 burned acres on the Lolo forest in 2017, only 4% were proposed and analyzed for salvage, and 2.7% actually are slated for timber harvest.
“People focus on that 4% figure and don’t realize the rest of what we do,” Carver noted. “People might be surprised.”
Those figures don’t take into consideration the logging that took place when firefighters were creating “shaded fuel breaks” along Cottonwood Lakes Road, which was part of the fireline. As Carver’s truck passes westward through the area, he points to the right where the fire break dipped 200 feet into the woods. On the left the trees and underbrush are so thick, they’re difficult to see through for more than 20 feet.
“We had multi-agency strike teams … and logging trucks were hauling out live trees while we did burnouts during the fire,” Carver recalled. The trees here don’t have the telltale painted ring that marks trees that aren’t supposed to be removed; Carver said that shows “the frenzy of activity that took place here two years ago.”
Before a wildfire is even considered “contained” by fire lines and long before the smoke clears, a team known as BAERS — the acronym for the Burned Area Emergency Response program — descends on the landscape to identify risks to critical values and request funding for protective treatments.
“Fire is a natural process, so all of this is natural,” Ann Hadlow, a soil scientist and BAER coordinator for the Lolo National Forest, said as she surveyed the Dunham Creek drainage, where the Rice Ridge fire burned long and hard. “The BAER team doesn’t look at how to heal the slopes; they will come back naturally, because that’s what they do. But we do have federal infrastructure in the way, like roads, culverts, that kind of thing.
“So the landscape is fine. The issue is the infrastructure we have put in that can’t handle it. So we look at those values at risk.”
Those values include human life and safety; natural resources like municipal watersheds; endangered or threatened wildlife; private property; and cultural and heritage resources.
As the 2017 fire season wound down, seven BAER teams including 54 engineers, hydrologists, soil scientists, archaeologists, botanists and fish biologists fanned out to evaluate 350,000 acres across the Lolo National Forest. Using $2.7 million in federal funding, they moved to implement post-fire treatments to protect those “values at risk.”
Among other items, their work included:
• 7,219 acres of weed treatment
• 227 miles of road drainage maintenance
• 103 culvert modifications
• 54 miles of trail maintenance
• 82 trail and road warning signs
• 26 miles of hazard tree mitigation
• 1 hillslope stabilization
“Bull trout are a ‘value at risk,’” Dustin Walters, a hydrologist and BAER team member, said of the native fish that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. “That weighed heavily in decisions for a lot of road treatments that were prescribed to protect bull trout habitat.
“We will not try to keep every tablespoon of soil out of the streams from the hilltops, because that’s not feasible. But where the road system is an unnatural sediment source, we try to address that.”
On the Rice Ridge fire alone, 80 miles of road were maintained or improved. For the Lolo Peak fire, 28 miles of road saw work, and 38 miles were done on some of the 28,686 acres burned in the Liberty fire.
One of the restored roads is by Spruce Creek, where a July debris flow fully blocked the road and trapped a group behind it. Tree limbs tossed like pixie sticks remain, as do boulders that the creek splashes over. This week this road, which is one of the main routes into the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas, was closed to motorized traffic through next summer.
“This fall, we plan to remove the culvert and put in a bridge,” said Brian Story, the project engineer. “That will stabilize the road, and we’ll have natural runoffs … In post-fire response, we also try to accommodate fish passage, so along with infrastructure we consider resource needs.”
Standing on a steep slope charred by the Lolo Peak fire, Wetzstein hunts around for signs of their post-fire rehabilitation efforts and is quickly rewarded. It was a high-severity burn here, and all of the tall standing trees are dead.
But among their bases are bright yellow mesh bags protecting some of the 68,000 western larch and ponderosa pine seedlings that were planted on 463 acres here during the past two years. At $400 to $600 per acres, tree planting is expensive, so the nonprofit National Forest Foundation helps forests pay for the seedlings from the U.S. Forest Service nursery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and hires people to plant them.
“There’s never enough money to plant as much as we would like to,” Wetzstein said, adding that they also hope to replant 1,800 acres burned in the Rice Ridge fire.
The forest regularly collects cones at its nursery, where seeds are extracted and stored, with the history of where they originated recorded. After the Lolo Peak fire, Wetzstein asked the nursery to start growing some high-elevation seeds off the Lolo forest, and during the past two summers, seasonal contract workers planted hundreds every day.
“There weren’t a lot of seed sources, with no live trees around here to scatter their seeds,” Wetzstein said. “We took seed from similar vegetation and elevation, with similar characteristics to ensure they should be well-suited to the site.”
It’s not just the healthy seedlings that give him a broad smile this afternoon. Bright green moss covers the ground, and long golden grasses sway in the slight breeze. This might look like a dead landscape from far away, but up close it’s brimming with life.
“Seeing these good grasses, shrubs and forbs starting to come back in these really rocky soils is good to see,” he said. “It’s elk candy. If you flash forward ten years, with what we’ve planted and the regeneration on its own, you just might be surprised when you come back.”
Carver also sees a land of plenty among the dead trees from the Rice Ridge fire.
In one area we pass by stockpiled tree “wads” — basically root balls with parts of the trunks still attached. Those will be used to stabilize creek beds. Later, we drive past enormous slash piles; Carver says he’s toying with the idea of leaving them there for firewood gatherers.
Farther down the road, the willows already are 5 feet tall, and the blackened trunks are speckled with brown holes outlining the activities of woodpeckers. Carver said large fires often push around wildlife and birds, but most return.
“From a wildlife biologist’s point of view, the diversity is phenomenal,” Carver said. “There’s open forage with the young trees coming up, then the degrading trees we didn’t harvest will fall down and provide habitat.
“So it’s a smorgasbord depending on what wildlife you’re talking about.”