The last larch fire in Bigfork started August 24, 1921 near where the dam is on the Swan River today. It burned all the way to the Swan Range, taking out the Swan River School before burning out in early September.
When assessing a homes risk of going up in flames during a wildfire firefighter Rick Trembath says these historical details matter.
“We had a lot of low intensity fires that did a lot of maintenance,” says Trembath. “When we excluded fire, we started to get thicker trees, and we get fires that are more intense.”
At a recent Firewise presentation at the Bigfork Fire Department, Trembath showed some of the earliest photos of Bigfork. They dated back to the turn of the 20th century, and showed a Bigfork with far fewer trees.
“Through time we’ve really developed a lot of fuel,” says Trembath, “so we’re getting some pretty intense burning.” Trembath showed many “then and now” pictures of the woods around the Bigfork, Ferndale, and East Shore area. One picture showed an old larch stump, logged around the early 1900’s and surrounded by dozens of smaller Douglas Fir and dead fallen trees. Trembath says such a landscape is stoked to burn, and he advocates cleaning and burning in a preventative exercise.
“Better to burn it on our terms than let it go to some August day.”
Bigfork’s been involved with Firewise for 5-years. The main focus has been giving homeowners incentives to create defensible space around their homes. Firewise can provide grants through the Bigfork Fire Department up to $1,500 to offset the cutting and clearing. But Trembath says they’re moving past “defensible space,” and encouraging homeowners and neighborhoods to manage whole properties and the areas in between homes.
“If you give me a donut around which there’s thick trees,” says Trembath, “I’m going to be hard pressed to put my firefighters in it.”
Trembath speaks from 44-years as a wildland firefighter, 33 years with the BFD. When he’s called to check out a home for fire risk, he looks at the density of the woods around the home. Thick underbrush and dying and fallen trees sets of warning bells for Trembath because they become “ladder fuels”; if they spark, flames use them to climb up the big trees and ignite the canopy. From the tree tops a fire can take off and sweep across big areas. Another problem area is the build up of pine needles and leaves around a home. Trembath showed pictures of homes lost or damaged from wildfire. Generally, its sparks, not flames, which will catch a house on fire. Sparks land on roofs and in the cracks and slowly smolders, burning into a home. Trembath also factors in the slope a home is built on. Steeper slopes see higher intensity fires and he recommends clearing a big space on the downhill side of a house as a buffer from the heat of the flames.
Trembath recommends creating open space throughout your property by thinning trees, pruning low branches, and piling and burning these ground fuels in the late fall and early spring. Professional logging is a possibility Trembath mentions that could profit a homeowner, provided there was enough marketable timber. For others, Firewise grants are still available for this season. Both the Bigfork Fire Department and the MT Department of Natural Resources and Conservation have more information.
Contact Fire Chief Chuck Harris at 837-4590 for the Bigfork, Ferndale and Swan areas.
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