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There's only one way in and out of Grant Creek. The forest is overgrown and ready to burn. And there are plenty of homes scattered about in the timber.

It's such a perfect example of what the Forest Service considers a bad situation that the agency has used it as a scenario in a national training course.

Now the agency is proposing to do something about that.

The Lolo National Forest's Missoula Ranger District is proposing a fuels reduction project on 2,400 acres in the Grant, Butler and LaValle creek drainages, beginning as early as next year.

"We want to reduce the risk of large fires in the area," said Missoula District Ranger Maggie Pittman. "It's the same kind of project that we're trying to do all over the Northern Rockies."

Pittman proposes to do an environmental assessment for the project. Once that's completed, the work would be done as the agency finds time and funding becomes available.

The Missoula Ranger District has been working with private landowners and local fire districts in the area over the last few years to begin reducing the fire threat around homes. This project would be a continuation of those efforts on national forest lands.

"Fire doesn't see boundaries," said Pittman. "In these types of wildland-urban interface … large fires cost lots of money, property and sometimes even lives."

In 2003, the Black Mountain fire west of Missoula cost taxpayers $28 million in firefighting costs.

"When you get a large fire like that next to homes, you pull out all the stops," said John Waverek, the Missoula Ranger District's fire management officer. "It quickly becomes very expensive. If you have the opportunity to be proactive, the cost of that work doesn't even come close to what taxpayers will pay to fight a fire. It is money well spent."

In Grant Creek, the Forest Service is proposing to thin the forest to open the canopy and reduce the density of the forest's crown on a little over 1,100 acres. Most of that work will take place by Forest Service crews over the next few years as time permits.

Another 900 acres will be thinned using commercial crews. The agency also plans some prescribed burning on 365 acres.

The proposal calls for no new permanent roads, although some temporary roads might be needed to harvest some of the units.

"There are some pockets of beautiful, big ponderosa pine in there," said Pittman. "There are probably a lot of folks that don't know that. From a bird's-eye view, it's all pretty thick in there."

A fire in the area could threaten the Snowbowl ski area as well as important telecommunication towers at two different sites, said Waverek. And then there are the homes scattered about.

"We've seen an amazing amount of support from the people who live in the area," he said.

Working with local fire districts, Waverek said officials met with the owners of nearly 300 homes to discuss ways to reduce fire danger around their residences. Over the course of a few years, the interagency effort helped homeowners reduce fuels on many of those private lands.

The hope is that this project would set the stage for a safer return of fire to the area.

Waverek said most of the south-facing slopes below 5,000 feet were probably once covered by well-spaced ponderosa pine that experienced a low-intensity fire every 10 years or so. After 100 years of fire suppression, those areas are now overgrown and ready to burn in a big way.

Removing some of that understory will greatly reduce the chance of a disastrous wildfire and could in time make it safe to reintroduce fire in the area.

"We'd like to be able to reintroduce fire wherever we can," said Pittman. "It helps to reinvigorate the landscape, but that's impossible to do when we have so much bush and ladder fuels."

The work will have to be accomplished over time. Waverek said that local fire crews may do most of the noncommercial thinning in the summer during downtime in between their firefighting duties.

Pittman wants to complete the environmental assessment process by spring and see work get started as early as next fall.

To explain the project, the Missoula Ranger District is holding an open house at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Grant Creek Inn.

"We're hopeful that people will be interested in this and come to our meeting with their thoughts and ideas," Pittman said.

Anyone wanting more information on the project can call Waverek or Don Stadler at 329-3814.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 523-5259 or at pbackus@missoulian.com

Come talk about logging

The Missoula Ranger District is hosting an open house Wednesday to discuss the proposed fuels reduction project in the Grant Creek area. The meeting will be held at the Grant Creek Inn from 7 to 9 p.m.

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