Quelling Future Fire

Fire officials urge fuel mitigation now to help prevent what could be a dangerous wildfire season
Thursday, June 18, 2020
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(Photo by Nick Jacobs) Taken in the Hearts and Diamonds subdivision of the Huntley Butte area, this photo shows a good example of  what pre-mitigation versus post-mitigation actually looks like. On the right is pre-mitigation.

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(Photo by Mitch Paige) CFS mitigation crew member Josh Wiseman gets to work on some tree thinning in the Huntley Butte area this week.

There is a saying in the wildland fire world that goes something like this — you can choose your own landscaping or you can let Mother Nature choose it for you. Just know that if you opt for the latter, you might not be pleased with the result.

Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger shared the saying this week when talking about the potential for a “very active” fire season.

While conditions vary around the state, Cowger said that soils in the area are very similar to how they appeared in 2012 and 2015 — both of which were severe summer fire seasons. 2012 saw the loss of more than 1.2 million acres in Montana to wildfire, while 2015’s losses totaled 334,221 acres, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information and forestpolicypub.com.

This year, Columbus Fire Rescue (CFR) has already sent a truck and crew to Helena on an agency assist. There have also been two grass fires along the railroad tracks — one last week that was just across the Yellowstone County border, and one in early May that burned 100 acres just east of Columbus and right up to the Yellowstone River.

Although the region recently was doused with a hefty helping of moisture, it was followed by days of wind, which wicked all the good away.

And the Columbus area is behind on rain.

As of Tuesday, June 16, the year-to-date precipitation total in Columbus alone was 2 inches below normal, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Rapelje is in better shape, with year-to-date precipitation sitting at 7.52 inches, which is slightly above normal.

Add to the mix the impact COVID-19 will make on wildland firefighting — a list that Cowger readily rattled off:

-Fire camps on large fire scenes that put crews in close proximity.

-The question of exposing a community to fire or exposing fire crews to COVID-19 exposure from each other.

-Having to wait longer than normal to get outside resources due to number of COVID-19 precautions and complications.

POWERFUL CASE FOR PREVENTION

In expectation of a potential serious fire season, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) will have a helicopter stationed in Billings all summer. Severity crews are already being staffed around Stillwater County, which are specifically designed to provide extra help.

Cowger says local crews will respond quickly and do as much as they can possibly do, but those efforts could be limited due to manpower and outside resource availability.

These factors have Cowger making a hard push for proactive fuel mitigation programs that are readily available to Stillwater County residents.

Of the nearly 10,000 people who call Stillwater County home, more than half live in what is considered Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI. In simple terms, WUI refers to the homes/developments in undeveloped land of vegetation, forests and grasslands.

Fuel mitigation (also called fuel reduction) is the reduction of surface and ladder fuels. Ladder fuel is a firefighting term for live or dead vegetation that could allow a fire to “climb” up from the ground and into a tree canopy. Common ladder fuels include tall grass, shrubs and tree branches. A woodpile stacked against a house could also be considered a ladder fuel.

In contrast to the common misconception that mitigation means clear-cutting, Cowger said fuel mitigation has evolved into “landscape” mitigation, which looks at bigger chunks of land near homes.

The good news is that there are all kinds of programs and financial help available for those who want to increase the likelihood of their home surviving a wildland fire.

Some of that expertise can be found at CFR’s fuel mitigation program in which a crew will conduct a free assessment and make recommendations, said Cowger. When it comes to implementing those recommendations, grant money is available to homeowners. Cowger said the Stillwater Valley Watershed Council also has some money to assist homeowners with the process. Homeowners can help pay with things such as in-kind labor, said Cowger.

So far this year, approximately five properties in the Hearts and Diamonds and Huntley Butte area are taking advantage of such programs, said Cowger.

During the past 10 years of the program, Cowger estimates about 100 property owners have taken part in the fuel mitigation program.

“That’s truly the first line of defense,” said Cowger.

For more information about the programs, call CFR at 322-4302.