Shortly after two wildfires occurred in late August in the Helena area, federal, state and local officials sent out a news release touting that fuel-reduction work in the wildland area helped lay the groundwork for the swift suppression of the blazes.
Local officials said this preparation was years in the making and the work continues.
The Grizzly Gulch fire started Aug. 26 and was kept to about 25 acres and the Mount Helena fire, on the cusp of Last Chance Gulch, started Aug. 28 and was kept to about 18 acres.
Management to reduce fuel accumulations in this area worked exactly as it should, officials said. With reduced fire intensity – a direct result of active management – staff have more options to safely manage wildfires.
“Since 2004, we have been conducting regular prescribed burning in the South Hills to help prevent high intensity wildfires that pose risks to our community and fire personnel,” Helena District Ranger Kathy Bushnell with the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest said in a news release.
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Good Neighbor Authority, part of the 2018 Farm Bill, allows federal land managers to enter into agreements with state and local land management agencies to create healthier forests, a stronger local economy, and a reduction in the risk of severe wildfires in the wildland urban interface.
Additionally, the Montana Forest Action Plan and Forest Service 10-Year Fire Reduction Strategy are both aimed at working across jurisdictional lines and increasing the pace and scale of fuels and forest health treatments to address the severity of wildfires, according to the news release from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).
Managing fuels across jurisdictional boundaries is especially important in areas like Helena where national forest, state, local and private lands are intermingled, officials said.
Brad Langsather, open lands manager for the Helena Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department, said the city has been working diligently the last 15-20 years to reduce forest field in the city’s open space system and has made progress in meeting that goal.
He said several projects have been done on the north face of Mount Helena, and involved the city working with the U.S. Forest Service, DNRC and Lewis and Clark County.
Langsather said that involved fuel-reduction projects that did lessen fire intensity, reduce fuels and lessen the likelihood of a crown fire in the forest.
Officials said fuels-reduction work in the Helena area is an ongoing process and will continue to require coordination between the city, DNRC, Tri-County FireSafe Working Group, Bureau of Land Management, National Resources Conservation Service, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and other partners and private landowners across local, state and federal jurisdictional lines.
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins said one of the fantastic things about Helena is its proximity to open lands.
“But the threat of wildfire is real,” he said. “We can’t always predict where and when fires will happen, but we can prepare.”
He said the city’s participation in mutual aid agreements and fuel reduction projects with local, state and federal partners over the years proved critical in the city’s ability to respond to the fires in August.
Langsather said there is more work to do. He said the city still needs to burn some of the hand-piled material in the area.
“We have a backlog of burning we need to do this winter,” he said, adding there needs to be snow cover on the landscape to do such burns.
Hoyt Richards, DNRC area manager for the central land office in Helena, said contractors have been thinning and piling branches this summer that will be burned in the fall and winter.
He said work that is planned for later this year includes fuels reduction work and prescribed burning on the north end of the Rodney Ridge Trail, and piles remain on the north side of Mount Helena, Grizzly Gulch, Wakina Sky, and the Unionville area.
Helena Fire Chief Jon Campbell said any time you reduce the quantity of fuel, you reduce the severity of fire behavior.
"This is an ongoing effort," he said.
Langsather said there has been initial forest field treatment on 95% of the forested acres in the city’s trail system.
He said the areas treated need to be revisited about every 10 years to reduce fuel on the landscape.
Langsather said they have been able to increase the space between trees and increase the height from the forest floor to the canopy.
“Our suppression tactics are effective because we need to be diligent about managing fuels,” he said.
Langsather said he has been concerned all summer about fires.
He said Helena, which has 1,800 forested acres and 2,000 acres of open space, has one of the smallest footprints of forest land ownership.
“But it has to be intensively managed,” he said.
Langsather said when forests around Helena were initially evaluated, most fell into the high intensity category as many of the trees were victims of beetle kill.
He said that was much of the reason for the city initiating an aggressive fuel-management program.
Langsather said the goal is to have fewer trees, bigger trees and stronger trees and to selectively remove unhealthy trees.
He said there was some resistance from the public.
“But I think we have gained the public’s trust over time in how minimal the amount of disturbance has been to recreation and wildlife,” he said. “The public has become more used to seeing the work on the landscape.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte said the fuel-reduction projects in the Helena area helped firefighters to effectively respond to the fires, protecting lives and property.
“Active forest management is critical to reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and we’re committed to working with our partners to bring more private, state, tribal, and federal acres under management," he said in the news release.
Visit Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest - Fire Management (usda.gov) to learn more about the role of prescribed fire. Visit Good Neighbor Authority/US Forest Service (usda.gov) to learn more about the Good Neighbor Authority. Visit montanaforestactionplan.org to learn more about the Montana Forest Action Plan. Visit www.MTFireInfo.org to learn more about how you can prepare your home, your family, and your community for wildfire.
This story is based on a news release from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and reporting by the Independent Record's Phil Drake, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-231-9021.