Sawmill Gulch fire

Smoke from a 125-acre prescribed burn in the Sawmill Gulch hiking area north of Missoula could be seen on Tuesday. Prescribed burning could help reduce the severity of large wildfires later in the summer, according to U.S. Forest Service fire researchers. 

On Monday, the Missoula City Club got a classroom lesson on getting ahead of its summer wildfire problem. On Tuesday, the Missoula Valley got the show and tell.

"That prescribed burn was a classic example of what we need to do to protect our homes and remove a lot of dead material from the forest floor,” said Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, who spent 38 years as a smokejumper and firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. “We can cut trees and we should cut trees, but there’s a lot of stuff left on the forest floor that’s ready to burn. A prescribed burn that falls within prescription can take care of a lot of that deadfall.”

Nevertheless, the Lolo National Forest’s prescribed burn of about 125 acres along Missoula’s popular Sawmill Gulch hiking area drew a lot of cranky responses from people upset their spring day got smoked up.

“We’re already coming up toward the end for this type of burning for the year,” said Missoula City-County Health Department air quality specialist Sarah Coefield. “Air was good yesterday. We all got whiffs of the campfire smell, but some of that may have been Petty Creek burns in the Ninemile area. They lit 450 acres on Tuesday. The Missoula Ranger District burned Blue Mountain three weeks ago and the Rattlesnake yesterday. They’re done for the year now.”

If that kind of fire took place more often, the more catastrophic wildfires of late summer might not be so bad, according to research forester Mark Finney of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Lab. Historic evidence shows the area around Missoula between Alberton and Drummond burns about 30,000 acres a year. But recently all that has ignited in late July and August, under hot, dry conditions that put up much more smoke and destroy more property.

“Yes, you smelled smoke, but that was just one day,” Finney said. Using prescribed fires from spring to fall and taking advantage of natural wildfires to remove built-up fuels in the forest would make the occasional big summer fires much less intense, he said. Unfortunately, that means bumping up our annual forest burning in Montana from an average 115,000 acres a year to about 680,000 acres.  

“And that kind of material doesn’t pay its way out of the woods,” Finney said. “There isn’t an easy economic solution here. You have backlog of forest management activity that requires money.”

Coefield said she'd approved three additional burns in the Missoula air-monitoring area during this spring's burning period, but the Forest Service only completed half of one of them due to limited resources. And were it not for lack of personnel, Tuesday's burn might have been larger, she said.

Nevertheless, many states and regional fire overseers have started developing ways to do just that, Finney said. Washington state fire officials recently released a 20-year strategic plan for forest restoration that calls for much more regular prescribed burning.

California has a similar plan in the works, acknowledging that simply suppressing wildfires won’t solve the fuel-buildup problem. Missoula County and Montana state officials are also working on ways to increase forest fuels reduction beyond commercial logging.

“The timber program itself can’t pay for what needs to be done on the ground,” Curdy said. “With a robust prescribed fire program, we only create 17 percent of the smoke that normally happens with a big wildfire. Tuesday’s burn wasn’t nearly what you get suffocating this valley during a heavy fire season.”

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