CHOTEAU – The 2015 fire season left a lot of 2016 spring cleaning for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
"It was not our biggest year, but it was definitely substantial," said Seth Carbonari, fire manager for the Spotted Bear Ranger District. "We had 43 starts in the wilderness, of which 10 were suppressed successfully. The other 33 were managed for resource objectives. We burned about 62,000 acres of wilderness and about 150,000 acres in and around the wilderness."
By "managed," Rocky Mountain Front District Ranger Mike Munoz said sometimes crews managed to stay alive. The 2015 fire season presented a lot of extremely challenging decisions whether to stop a fire or get out of its way.
"The Spotted Eagle fire burned about 40,000 acres in six hours and moved seven or eight miles," Munoz said. "We had to evacuate the entire town of Heart Butte. But we had three or four fires that were reported by lookouts in previous fire scars. And with those, we know right away that we don't even have to fly those fires or expose our people. They went out on their own after burning less than an acre."
The Spotted Eagle fire took off on the anniversary of the catastrophic 1910 Great Burn that killed 84 firefighters before burning itself out. Munoz said this time, weather forecasters were able to provide detailed warnings of the threat, which came true.
The end of August saw three major fires on the Rocky Mountain Ranger District. One on Moose Ridge burned widely but got little attention as it ran into older fire scars.
Another near the Benchmark trailhead got most of the ranger district's firefighting resources as it came within half a mile of lodges and cabins. Munoz said his crews also were able to use older burn zones to their advantage in saving structures there.
But the Spotted Eagle fire was burning through timber that hadn't seen another blaze in 125 years.
"We could have put Moose Ridge out, but then we would never have caught Benchmark," Munoz said. "Between 1960 and 2015 we've had 440 deaths fighting fires and 439 of those were fighting fires we were trying to suppress. Now we don't expose people to strategies and tactics that don't work. Even if we had all the resources in the world at Spotted Eagle, we just would have been killing people."
The Bear Creek fire on the adjacent Spotted Bear Ranger District made a similar run, covering 17,000 acres and 9 1/2 miles in five hours. It blasted the Gorge Creek and Meadow Creek trailheads, forcing evacuation of dozens of hikers and 80 horses and mules.
"There's a lot of work left over," Spotted Bear District Ranger Deb Mucklow said. "We have trails impacted all along the South Fork of the Flathead River. We've lost practically all the structures along that corridor. It will be a monumental effort to get those trails back open."
On the Spotted Bear Ranger District alone, Mucklow estimated she has about $250,000 worth of work restoring service on 122 miles of burned-over trail. At the moment, she's only got about $80,000 to spend on that work.
And she's waiting to hear how the U.S. Forest Service Region 1 will allocate a mandated 30 percent reduction in backcountry trails funding spread over three years. The region, which covers all of Montana and parts of Idaho and the Dakotas, had to sacrifice funds to other parts of the nation where front-country activity was deemed in greater need.
"We're trying to figure out different approaches to the workload," Mucklow said. "Our partners like the Montana Conservation Corps are really good, but even they come with a cost. A lot of the volunteers can't start before June or July, and they don't have the same skills and stamina as a Forest Service trail crew."
But they will be there in force, according to Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation Director Carol Treadwell. In its 20th season this year, the Hungry Horse-based organization plans to field volunteers on about 40 projects throughout the 1.5 million-acre wilderness complex.
Many of the projects still have space available for volunteers who can contribute three to nine days in the backcountry pulling weeds, fixing trail and exploring some of the wilderness' most remote areas. For more information, check the foundation's website, bmwf.org.