Foresters may extend ‘let it burn’ policy beyond wilderness areas

Forestersmay extend ‘let it burn’ policy beyond wilderness areas

10June 2008

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KALISPELL – Foresters looking to fight fire with fire have started lookingbeyond the boundaries of designated wilderness areas, and this summer will applya sort of “let it burn” policy to public lands throughout northwest Montana.

They call it “wildland fire use” and this summer it could be used in theNorth Fork Flathead drainage above Columbia Falls, the Swan Range near Bigforkand the Mission Mountains.

While many wildfires will be fought, others can provide “a valuable tool forland managers,” said Steve Brady, Swan Lake district ranger for the FlatheadNational Forest. “Decisions to use naturally ignited fire as a tool forresource management objectives are made incident by incident, and only undercertain conditions,” he said. It all began back in 1983, when lightning struck deepin the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a tree burst into flame, and firefighters didabsolutely nothing. Instead, they watched as the flames crept slowly up-mountain,eventually burning across 230 acres.

It was, by forest officials’ own admission, a “huge moment,” coming as itdid on the heels of seven decades of aggressive fire suppression.

Following the big burns of 1910 – when more than

3 million acres burned in Montana and Idaho – forest policy was to quench everyflame by midmorning the day after a lightning storm.

But by the early 1980s, foresters had realized a whole host of problems withthat policy. For instance, all that timber they saved from burning was pilingup, creating a huge fuel stockpile.

In addition, a change to hotter, drier, longer summers was making it harder andharder to snuff the big blazes. And Western forest ecosystems, it seemed, neededthat fire, had evolved with that fire, were missing that fire.

Far from being biological deserts, scientists were learning that burned-overforestland was home to tremendous life.

Western tanagers thrived in low-severity burns. Juncos nested in somewhat hotterburns, and birds such as the black-backed woodpecker, mountain bluebird andolive-sided flycatcher actually liked their forest well-done.

They came to feast on beetles, some of which have evolved infrared detectors

in their thorax, and some with smoke sniffers in their antennae.

Lodgepole pine relied on fire’s heat to open their serotinous cones and releasetree seed. Western larch hate the shade, and grew faster once the overstory wasburned away. Seeds from red-stemmed ceanothus – dormant for centuries -germinated only after a good fire.

Spirea, fireweed, arnica, pine grass, Bicknell’s geranium, even certain toads,all boomed in the burn.

It was time, forest managers concluded, to make a distinction between fire thatate homes and private property, and fire that had for millennia been a part ofWestern woods. The one was certainly foe, but the other, it seems, was friend.

Since that first 230 acres burned in the Bob back in 1983, tens of thousands ofacres have been monitored rather than attacked after the lightning struck. Butmost all of those acres have been within designated wilderness areas, placeswhere nature is left to her own devices.

Now, however, wildland fire use is spreading onto other forestlands.

If the time is right, and the place is right, the long-term climate andshort-term weather forecasts are right, and the terrain is right, then wildlandfire use can be a tool for forest lands well beyond the Bob.

Last year, Flathead National Forest officials expanded the program outside theBob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness areas, to include forestlands aroundHungry Horse Reservoir. Now, they’re looking to more lands as possible wildlandfire use sites, hoping not only to restore forest health but also to eat up fueland reduce the risk of catastrophic fire in the future.

“Not all fires started by lightning will be managed as wildland fire use,”said Jimmy DeHerrera, The Flathead’s district ranger on the Hungry Horse-GlacierView District. “But, when fire can benefit the forest and wildlife, and thereare no values at risk, we will consider utilizing fire use.”

Fighting fire with fire allows managers to better pick the time and the place ofthe blaze, officials said, and to steer resources to other, more high-priorityburns.

To hear more about the Flathead’s expanded wildland fire use program, drop byany of several public meetings scheduled in coming weeks.

For fire’s future in the North Fork, an open house is set for Thursday, from 7to 8 p.m. at Sondreson Hall, north of Polebridge. The Swan Lake District isholding two meetings, one to discuss wildland fire use in the Swan Range, andone to talk about fire in the Missions.

The first open house will be Wednesday, June 18, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the CondonCommunity Center. The second is Thursday, June 19, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the SwanLake Ranger Station in Bigfork.

Flathead forest fire management specialists will be on hand at all meetings,available to discuss firefighting policy past, present and future. For moreinformation, call the Hungry Horse-Glacier View District at 387-3800, or theSwan Lake District at 837-7500.

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