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By John Ingebretson
Swan Valley Connections 

Restoration of Fire-adapted Ecosystems - "The Era of Mega-Fires"


Swan Valley Connections

Lodgepole thinning on private land in the Swan Valley.

In the past decade, we have made significant progress in making the Seeley/Swan more resilient to the effects of wildfire. This has been accomplished by conducting fuel reduction treatments on hundreds of acres of private land, where cost-share funding has helped landowners reduce the risk of wildfire on their forested lands. Adjacent to these treatments and often outside the Wildland Urban Interface at higher elevations, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the US Forest Service, as well as other large landowners such as The Nature Conservancy, have similarly treated more acres by mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. These fuel reduction efforts demonstrate the intent of the 2001 National Fire Plan, which was written to encourage and guide wildfire mitigation projects across ownership and jurisdictional boundaries.

Our local Seeley-Swan Fire Plan, or Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), was written in 2003 by a Fire Plan Team consisting of community members and fire managers, and gives authority to operate under the National Fire plan. The CWPP describes wildfire risk in our communities, prioritizes where treatments should occur, tracks progress of treatments across the landscape and is currently being updated for 2018.

In the Seeley/Swan, we live in a fire-adapted landscape, where fire has been largely excluded from the ecosystem for nearly 100 years. Many fire managers believe it's time to put fire to work for us by increasing the use of prescribed fire and mechanical thinning as a cost-effective, proactive part of a restoration solution.

In April, Dr. Paul Hessburg, Ph.D. Research Landscape Ecologist, spoke to a standing-room-only audience in Seeley Lake about recent science that confirms wildfires are becoming much larger and more destructive. With the advent of the "Era of Mega-Fires", Hessburg said, "Many have recognized the need to change our management methodology at a landscape level."

Megafires are classified as wildfires that burn more than 100,000 acres and may be destructive to communities, wildlife habitat and natural resources.

"The issue should concern each of us as taxpayers, as billions of dollars are spent each year on fire suppression and rebuilding structures after they are destroyed and fire seasons are commonly 40 to 80 days longer now than just 50 years ago. But the good news is we can do a lot to reduce the destruction and severity of them." Hessburg said.

"We've learned fire suppression all by itself is an incomplete solution. A cultural shift is needed. Instead of being reactive to fires, we need to be proactive. The evidence is mounting that the role of fire suppression needs to steadily decline while being replaced by other tools."

"In northwest Montana those tools are prescribed burning, or hazard reduction burning, and wildfire fuels mitigation. These treatments are occurring at nowhere near the scale needed," he elaborated.

He pointed out that smoke from prescribed burning is a lot less than wildfire smoke and mechanical thinning, with or without prescribed fire, is our best option.

"Where there are lots of trees on a landscape, we can cut some down to an appropriate spacing where the forest can handle regular intervals of fire. People need to make their landscapes, homes, yards and communities fire resilient again."

Finally, Hessburg said, "There isn't a future without wildfires and smoke. Instead of us trying to avoid fire, we all need to learn to better live with them."

In 2014, the Swan Lake Ranger District, Flathead National Forest, conducted the Mission Upland Prescribed Fire on 1,000 acres in Piper Creek within, and just outside, the Mission Mountains Wilderness. The intent was to allow future lightning-caused fires to play a more natural role.

This fall, the US Forest Service is planning to burn another 1,000 acres above Crystal Lake, again within and just outside the Mission Mountains Wilderness.

Treatments such as these recognize that frequent, low-intensity fire is essential for healthy forests and better-protected communities, as well as increasing fire fighter and public safety.

All of us that live, work and play in the Seeley/Swan need to be part of the solution. Treatments that occur adjacent to our homes and within our community, create a fire-resistant regime that can reduce the potential for spread of wildfire between the National Forest and private land. In addition, over the last 10 years this work has contributed to the local economy, employing many local contractors and putting more than two million dollars into the local economy.

Fire season has arrived in the Northern Rockies. There are many ways to protect our homes before a fire starts and defending a home can be nearly impossible if a homeowner has not mitigated fire risk.

Free wildfire mitigation assessments are available for your forested property as well as help in obtaining cost-share grant funds to complete your project. In Seeley Lake, call the Clearwater Resource Council at 406-677-0069; in the Blackfoot call the Blackfoot Challenge at 406-793-3900; and in the Swan Valley, call Swan Valley Connections at 406-754-3137.


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