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LOLO – How do you reconcile the fact that many private landowners in Montana are resistant to the government and local fire managers telling them what to do with their land when those same private landowners become outraged after a wildfire burns their property that wasn’t properly taken care of beforehand?

That’s the question a group of state legislators grappled with when they met with Bitterroot Valley fire managers and Montana Department of Natural Resources forestry officials on Thursday to tour the remains of the 11,000-acre Lolo Creek Complex fire that ripped through the Highway 12 corridor west of Lolo this past August.

The lightning-caused and wind-whipped blaze burned four houses and forced the evacuation of scores of people who lived in the area. On Thursday, the group met to look at the fire with the benefit of hindsight – and to discuss how similar fires in populated areas could be dealt with in the future.

State Sen. Cliff Larson of Frenchtown, who represents Senate District 50, said he lives near where the Black Cat fire torched 12,000 acres in 2007.

“I know the Frenchtown Fire Department tried to work with local landowners on fuel reduction programs and protecting against fire hazards,” he recalled. “People said, ‘Just get off my property, don’t tell me what to do.’ And there are two people that I know of personally that were outraged when the fire department didn’t come there right away and because they had 15 cords of wood stacked behind their house they had to hose them down to protect their house.

“And they are outraged that they didn’t get that attention, even though the fire department went there in advance and warned them that they have some serious fire hazards right there on their property. And those two families are still complaining. So how do we force people to cooperate with the DNRC and the fire departments and the Forest Service? It’s frustrating.”

Bob Harrington, the Montana DNRC state forester, said that community wildfire prevention plans are really good in some counties but not great in others.

“We in the fire service have been at it for 15 to 20 years now, really intensely trying to impress on those homeowners that live in the wildland/urban interface to treat their property,” he explained. “We do public media, we do workshops, and there are individual consultations that the fire departments do, that our folks do. A lot of the landowners do it and take advantage of it. But we have a lot folks that that isn’t enough of an incentive yet. Whether it’s pressure from insurance, pressure from banking or peer pressure from their neighbors. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. Unfortunately, sometimes we as Americans, there’s a lot of us that don’t respond unless it hits us in the wallet.”

At the Thursday tour, Harrington was joined by Greg Poncin, the incident commander of the Northern Rockies Type 1 team that took over control of the Lolo Creek Complex fire when it was named the nation’s highest-priority fire; Tony Liane, the area manager for the DNRC’s southwestern land office; and Jon Hansen, a unit manager for DNRC who was working on the fire in the first few hours.

Lightning strikes started the Schoolhouse fire and the West Fork II fires, which later combined to form the Lolo Creek Complex fire. The fire managers answered questions and gave an explanation to a group of state legislators from Ravalli County, including Roh Ehli, Pat Connell, Nancy Ballance, Ed Greef, Fred Thomas and Larson from Frenchtown.

The fire managers agreed that the Lolo Creek Complex’s main blowup was the type of fire behavior that is not easily controlled.

“This is where the fire came across the highway,” Hansen said, pointing to a map. “If anybody had tried to defend these structures, they would have been reduced to cinders. I sat there for two hours, and you would see a spot fire start on the hill and by the time I got ready to take a picture, it was two acres and going. It was just catastrophic fire behavior. And sometime by about 4:30 p.m. on Monday the 19th, the fires had joined. The fortunate thing was the smoke column had shaded the schoolhouse, and dropped the temperature.

“You could look to the west and see cataclysmic fire behavior, just crown fire running and houses burning down the hill, and to the east it looked almost like a controlled burn. Because the smoke column kept the sun off it. I bet it was 10 or 20 degrees cooler underneath the smoke. It was like holding an umbrella over it. It kept the Schoolhouse fire moderated. It looks like the back side of the moon in some spots now. There is at least one house back there that it is a miracle that it didn’t burn, because the guy had slash piles in his yard and wood stacked next to his house. It’s really amazing more houses didn’t burn. For as bad as it was, it could have been a lot worse.”

Harrington said a variety of factors contributed to the fire’s wild blowup.

“That’s a part of the public dialogue that we’ve been having since this fire happened,” he said. “We have folks on one side who are saying, ‘See, forest management doesn’t do anything to stop forest fires,’ because there was so much Plum Creek land that had been managed, and that also burned. The reality is, when we are talking about thinning and pre-treating forest, we’re not talking about fires like this. This was one of the most extreme fire days that you are going to see in western Montana. Single-digit humidity, close to triple-digit temperatures, and then winds 20, 30 and 40 miles per hour.

“The analogy I always give is that we still give flu shots even though we have influenza outbreaks because we are trying to minimize the effect of that, so we’re still treating forests. Reducing fire risk and prioritizing some sections in the wildland urban interface, and it gets a little bit trickier on private land and industrial forest land, which the majority of this fire happened on, areas that had been intensively managed in the past. A lot of what carried the fire was second-growth trees. Everything was burning, grass and downed logs, everything.”

Harrington said he has noticed that some landowners take advantage of educational programs and cost-sharing programs to prepare their land for fire danger, but others do not.

“Working with industry and talking to them when they are doing timber harvest, we certainly have the hazardous fuel reduction law, so industry is taking care of that thinning part of it,” he said. “So, that leaves us with either small private or Forest Service land. The small private has had this national fire plan since 2000. And through the Forest Service, we’ve had cost-share programs and cooperation with fire departments on educating them on thinning around their homes, the right type of material for their roof, not storing firewood near the house and getting the needles out. A lot of landowners have taken advantage of it. A lot of folks have been exposed to education programs with fire departments or programs like FireSafe and FireWise, but it’s still a voluntary thing.

“So the innovators that understand where they live, they’ve taken advantage of it. But even then, like these guys saw managing this fire, we had a lot of folks in Sleeman Gulch where we had firefighters out there doing that work at the last minute. Our challenge is if we are going to put in lines ahead of time, similar to what they’ve done in California using fire modeling and risk mapping, where are the best places to do it?”

Poncin said that the fire could have been much worse had it not been for a break in the weather, favorable topography, successful retardant drops and extensive resources allocated to the fire.

“Many more houses could have been lost,” he said.

Ehli said that in his experience, telling property owners what they need to do on their land to mitigate fire danger isn’t going to work.

“When we start talking about a wildfire prevention plan, I was the chief of the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department when that came through and there was a huge pushback,” he said. “Oh my God, the resistance you got from county personnel, county commissioners and huge, huge pushback. So when you start talking about a community wildfire prevention plan, it’s not as simple as drawing lines on a map. Not only because of the enormous amount of property you have to think about, but also the political aspect as well.

“So we have got to be honest with ourselves when we start talking about prevention plans, I’m going to say it, it’s almost impossible unless we have a different mindset put in. And maybe we’re going to get there someday within the state of Montana and get people on board and get property owners on board about what we need to do, but we’ve really got to talk about the near impossibility of getting something like this in play, mostly from the political standpoint.”

Ballance agreed with Ehli that a top-down approach won’t work.

“I think it might be impossible to drive it from the top, which is what people are overreacting to,” she said. “But the cost-share program for example, but when you start talking to people in various wooded areas in Ravalli County, one of the things I’m seeing is neighbors who have taken advantage of that who have thinned their land putting pressure on their neighbors who have not. So I think it has to be both bottom-up and top-down, but you can’t drive it from the top-down.”

Thomas said that he wishes the state would have control of all the forest lands in Montana, but he knows that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

“We know there is a value for cleaning up and protecting these homes,” he told the DNRC officials. “We hope that the DNRC will build that into bigger plans and that we can create a model that the Forest Service can pick up and go with, because we know that’s the problem. We know that. And if we could have you guys managing the national forests we would probably not be here, but you don’t.”

Liane said that he hopes a fire like the Lolo Creek Complex will convince people to listen to local fire departments about taking steps to protect their property during the winter.

“Those of us who have served in natural resources committees would love to hear more about how do you convince those individuals who are knotheads to take the firewood off their back porch?” he said. “We need to build a plan that encourages people through local service activities, and the fire department in Frenchtown is very proactive. They have the same problem that Lolo does. People are sitting ducks when a fire like this comes through.”

Hansen said not a lot has changed since the big fires of 2000 rolled through the Bitterroot Valley.

“It’s the short-term memory thing that kills us,” he said. “I mean, if you had come down here last winter knocking on doors to sell people on the idea of fuel treatment, they would have told you to pound sand. Now the next three years, they’ll be begging for it. And three years from now they’ll have forgotten how bad the fire was. And we’ve seen it happen since the fires of 2000. You know, two years after the fire, they are back to not wanting anybody to tell them what to do.”

“Until the fire comes knocking at their door,” Ehli added.

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at

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Business Reporter

Business reporter for the Missoulian.