USA — Looking down from a ridge just south of Spearfish Friday morning, state fire chief Joe Lowe liked what he saw on the hillsides below: fewer trees.
“I look down there now and see something we could manage in a fire,” Lowe said, scanning a landscape where three out of four ponderosa pine trees have been cut and hauled away. “I’d much rather take on a fire where we have a chance of defending more homes.”
As director of the state Division of Wildland Fire Suppression, Lowe makes his living directing efforts to prevent and fight wild fires. Properly thinned with space between trees, the forest will burn more slowly when a fire does start rather than exploding into fast-moving crown fires, Lowe said.
That’s the thinning plan for 365 acres of land on the west side of the Mountain Plains 2 subdivision, with work being paid for by $318,000 in federal stimulus money.
“This is the perfect use for those federal funds,” Lowe said. “I’m always looking for areas of dense forest near houses that are a fire threat.”
With just one road in and out of the subdivision and heavy pine forest all around, Mountain Plains 2 was trouble waiting to happen, Lowe believes.
Development resident Ron Edstrom said such trouble will be less likely because of the forest treatment. As vice president of the local homeowners’ association, Edstrom has been involved in the planning of the projects. He said has broad support among homeowners, many of whom have worked to make their own property more resistant to fire.
“I would say that not everybody but most of the homeowners are very happy to see the fuel being reduced,” Edstrom said. “It just makes sense if there’s less to burn a fire would be easier to control and put out.”
The work west on the west side of Mountain Plains 2 is part of a larger thinning plan around the development near the mouth of Spearfish Canyon. The U.S. Forest Service had previously done some thinning on federal land south of the area. And Neiman Enterprises, a lumber and wood products company, just finished thinning work on 208 acres of land owned by the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department east of Mountain Plains 2.
“We really are reducing the risk to the subdivision from many directions,” west side project manager Rob Mattox said.
The steep terrain makes the work tricky. A cable-operated “yarder” can drag trees cut with chain saws up hills for up to 1,400 feet. There another machine strips the limbs and cuts them into commercially useful lengths.
The remaining slash will be cleaned up, ground and removed, with much being used to fire boilers at Neiman sawmills.
Neiman forester Bill Coburn said there was little sign so far of pine-beetle damage in the area being thinned. But there was plenty of fire danger in a thick forest around a development with just one road in and out, he said.
“Any fire coming out of the canyon would have gone through that area right up to the subdivision,” Coburn said. “This will make it much safer.”