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POTOMAC - Joe Heffner packs a chain saw, but he wields it like a gardener's shears.

Walking through the woods of the Forest Park subdivision above Bear Creek Road, he cuts down Douglas fir and lodgepole pine trees seemingly at random. Then he and fellow logger Clay Beier pile the results - everything from small sawlogs to doghair brush - in 6-foot-high piles for burning.

"I call it fire prevention landscaping," Heffner said. "It's a lot more labor-intensive than logging. But I like it. I've found a little niche."

The Florence contractor has been working in this wooded subdivision for weeks, clearing road corridors and thinning tree cover around the 38 homesites. Many of the trees he takes are beetle-killed or infested with other bugs. Others are healthy now, but will grow into sky-choking clusters guaranteed to drag the health of their neighbors to a low common denominator.

"They logged all this in the '70s, replanted and then never came back to do anything about it," homeowner Tiffany Seaman said of the forest covering her 21-acre property. "We bought this parcel in 2002, and built in 2008. In the meantime, the whole hillside was wiped out by beetles."

The one good thing about the mountain pine beetle infestation, Seaman said, was its undeniable progress. Neighbors who'd argued for years about the need for some intensive forestry suddenly shared a common threat. The tide of red trees arose just as the subdivision reached capacity. That combination convinced the homeowners association to get busy.

The tool they found was the Greenough/

Potomac Fuels Reduction Task Force. Under the guidance of the landowner partnership Blackfoot Challenge, the task force pools money and expertise from the federal Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, along with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Natural Resources Conservation Service to share the costs of reducing fire hazards.

"This was the No. 1 priority for the Greenough-Potomac Volunteer Fire Department," said Blackfoot Challenge forestry coordinator Matt Arno. "The firefighters realized they can't deal with all this fuel in the home-ignition zone. And now the public is recognizing how big the fuel issue is for the fire that's coming. If we don't treat it beforehand, there'll be almost nothing we can do when that fire comes."

The program splits the cost 50-50 between grant money and the landowner. But landowners can contribute labor, timber or materials to further defray the cost. So far, more than 200 Blackfoot-area residents have treated about 2,300 acres of forest through the program.

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"People weren't OK with cutting all the trees off the sides of the roads or around their houses," Arno said. "So we scaled it back to make more of a living fuel break, instead of a thicket that becomes an inferno."

In addition to thinning out 6- and 7-inch-diameter trees, Heffner also cuts down most of the 1- and 2-inch saplings that cover the ground. He also nips off the lower branches of mature trees, breaking the "fuel ladder" of burnable material that can move a ground fire into the crowns of the forest.

With the larger trees, the goal is a space of 10 feet between healthy crowns. That gives each tree better access to sunlight and rain, while reducing the chance that one burning crown can leap to another in a forest fire.

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The tactic's value got a real-world test in 2007, when the 18,000-acre Jocko Lakes fire rushed toward the town of Seeley Lake. Arno said as soon as the fire reached a 250-acre treated zone around the homesites, it lost momentum and gave firefighters a chance to protect the buildings.

One more challenge remains. While many landowners have been gathering all the available firewood for home heating, a lot of slash winds up in piles to be burned. The roads into Forest Park subdivision aren't built to handle logging trucks, and many of the residents aren't willing to have that kind of industrial impact on their lands. So Arno's looking for a market to make the slash pay its way out of the woods.

"We want to generate more ways for this to get used," he said. "Some of it can go to the pulp grinder at Bonner. But we'd also like to get some heat or energy out of it."

Because this isn't a one-time effort. The forest floor must continually be cleared to prevent a new generation of ladder fuels from creeping back. Mountain pine beetles, budworms, gypsy moths and other tree-eating bugs remain a threat.

"But this is way better than it was," Arno said. "We're finally starting to tie quite a few of these places together."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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