NORTH HILLS — Standing yards above the makeshift range where a person shooting exploding targets sparked a wildfire last month, Tri-Lakes Fire Chief Bob Drake grabbed the top of one of the 3 ½-foot tall Ponderosa pine saplings populating the area that he said presented a huge problem when trying to fight the fire.
“It was a really difficult initial attack,” Drake said. “ … (Firefighters were) doing everything they can, and this is what they’re dealing with and they can’t even get through that. You can’t stop it in this. I don’t care what you’ve got.”
The North Hills fire grew to nearly 8 square miles within days and caused the evacuation of 500 homes before fire crews were able to get it under control. Many factors contributed to its rapid growth, including a rough road to access the blaze, and winds that didn’t cooperate.
But Wednesday during a tour of the burned area with Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Drake focused on one element he says was controllable and he wants to see addressed: an abundance of fuels in the area that gave the fire plenty of material to grow.
“The thicker the fuel, it’s happy. And it was happy,” Drake said. The landscape in the hills north of Helena is filled with pine needles covering the ground, as well as brush, downed dead trees, standing Ponderosa and regrowth trees ranging from about 1-8 feet.
“A bomb is what we’ve got a mixture of,” Drake said. “We’ve got a combination of fuels you don’t want.”
Daines, a Republican, toured the area in part to bring more awareness to legislation he plans to introduce in the fall with California Democrat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Daines emphasizes the bill is bipartisan, saying that could help its chance of passage.
The bill will include a proposal to expedite thinning, logging, prescribed fire and other preventive measures within a half-mile on either side of roads or transmission lines. The North Hills fire started just yards from a road, and the devastating Camp fire in California last summer that killed at least 85 people and destroyed the entire town of Paradise was sparked by power lines.
A 2017 study found 84% of of wildfires were human-caused, with many of them occurring near roads.
Daines also said the bill would give the federal government stronger standing in court when a judge is making decisions about granting injunctions in cases where groups sue to stop thinning and logging projects. It would also mandate the Forest Service undertake three 50,000-acre thinning projects in Montana and another three in California.
“We need to do a much better job of proactively moving our forests,” Daines said Wednesday. "Either we’re going to manage our forests or our forests will manage us. For the sake of public safety, for the sake of environmental stewardship, the sake of jobs, we need to be better stewards of our forests.”
While the bill does not have funding attached, Daines said he thinks there’s enough money in the federal agency budgets, and that resources should be spent on prevention instead of fighting fires.
In the North Hills, Drake argued thinning projects would have helped. As an example, he pointed to private land in the area where trees had been thinned that didn't burn.
“Thinning is the only thing that works,” Drake said. “It gives us, the firefighters, the opportunity to be in there and stop the fire.”
The Federal Bureau of Land Management had plans to thin the North Hills area in 2020, BLM area field Manager Scott Haight said Wednesday. An archaeologist was supposed to go through the area to check for the presence of any cultural resources the week the fire broke out. Project planning would happen over the winter with funding coming next year to start work.
BLM does land health assessments in the wildland-urban interface areas around Helena, and works with local officials to identify areas that need attention and prioritize projects, Haight said.
In some cases, as with thinning projects in Clancy and Marysville, the BLM can sell trees to local lumber yards. But because of the size of trees in the North Hills made them not marketable, the thinning project there would have been a net cost project.
Drake said he was skeptical thinning would have happened in the North Hills next year because he predicted a lawsuit, like the ones that have been filed over Forest Service projects in the Ten Mile Creek area.
It's almost impossible to talk about logging in Montana without discussing the fight over court battles that can come along with proposals.
Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the groups that has objected to the Ten Mile-South Helena Project. On Wednesday he said using the North Hills fire as an example to make a point was "fear-mongering."
"He's using fear to pass legislation," Garrity said of Daines.
In an op-ed that ran early in the month, Garrity argued that lawsuits aren't shutting down logging, citing statistics that the Montana Forest Service region met just over 90% of its timber sale target last year and the Forest Service wasn't able to get bidders for 15% of what it offered last year.
"There's plenty of logging going on," Garrity said. "Litigation isn't stopping logging."
Garrity also argued that logging doesn't stop fires, citing news reports that a fire burning near Lincoln is moving through logging slash.
"There must have been logging occurring out there," Garrity said.
There are also studies and research that show logging doesn't reduce wildfire, Garrity said.
"In many cases it makes it worse because it dries out the forest floor and allows wind speed to be higher through the forest, which increases the flames," Garrity said.
Garrity wants to see a focus on creating defensible space near homes and more fire-safe structures in the urban-wilderness interface. He also said climate change needs to be a part of the discussion.
But those who worked on local fires, like Drake and Haight, point to a burn in the Scratch Gravels several years ago that was less severe, they say, in areas where thinning projects were completed.
“We as citizens, we have to take our forests back from the environmental groups,” Drake said. “Everything gets better when we thin.”