After the Smoke

I am getting sick and tired of relying on blind luck – I’d rather rely on forest management skill

By Dave Skinner

Most of us will be happier than usual when winter bids good riddance to our 2015 fire season.

We all knew this year had the potential to be terrible, confirmed in late June with the Glacier Rim Fire just north of Columbia Falls, “human caused” by an idiot. Fortunately, crews beat down the Rim fire before things really started to rock and roll. But I was pretty concerned and more than a little ticked off about how long that thing kept smoking, due to a stubborn hot core which in turn was thanks to a lack of salvage after 2003’s Robert Fire. The bone-dry dead snags and dead down wood made the job far more difficult than it should have been.

After that, I spent a lot of time on Inciweb, the government fire-reporting website. As of the time I write this, the site shows 34 Montana incidents, which include 8 “complexes” of multiple fires under common management.

The touchiest part of the season seemed to be about the 20th and 21st of August. There were so many fires in so many places, it was impossible to keep track. Worse, resources were pretty much tapped out, with a significant number of unstaffed blazes. And of course, it was the 105th anniversary to the day of the Big Blowup in 1910. The Flathead was completely socked in by smoke, just like in 1910, and forecasters were talking wind. Lucky for us, they erred on the good side of the guess.

But I am getting sick and tired of relying on blind luck – I’d rather rely on forest management skill.

The Sheep Fire (above the railroad trestle across from Goat Lick) presented the biggest, most consistent scare. Depending on wind, the fire could (and might still) either jump down into Essex, or blow across the river and blast off the face of Snowslip Mountain, or both. So far, neither has happened, but let me say it wasn’t a particularly smart idea to put the Great Bear Wilderness boundary (and all its management restrictions) so close to the railroad, highway, gas line and Essex.

Close behind Sheep is the Spotted Eagle fire (part of the Family Peak complex), which had a heck of a run (50,000 acres so far) toward Heart Butte from near Swift Reservoir. That’s at least the third big fire (Skyland and St. Mary) that has burned out of “protected” lands into the Blackfeet reservation in recent memory.

There could have been a fourth, but the Reynolds Creek Fire (4,900 acres) didn’t get that final wind push – thank goodness. Nor did the Thompson Fire (18,000 acres), which could have jumped the rock belt across the divide given a big enough thermal column. Lucky it didn’t.

The fires that I’m most interested in checking out after the smoke is up the South Fork Flathead: The Bear Creek Fire, which made its first big run on Big Blowup Day, down Bunker Creek into the Packers Roost. That put something like 17,000 acres in the record books (now it’s 67,000-plus acres), but the Bear Creek update the day after had this to say: “The fuels reduction thinning that occurred in the past few years around Meadow Creek Trailhead and Meadow Creek Outfitter’s Corrals help[ed] reduce the severity of burning through the trailhead.”

Luck? No, skill. It so happens that some logger friends of mine did some of that thinning the last two years (opposed all the way by Greens) and furthermore, did some parking — out near the Spotted Bear ranger station about ten years ago. I’m really wanting to see the results for myself — a great chance to see before and after logging combined with before and after fire.

But the other fires I want to examine are in the Spotted Bear River drainage, which was specifically left out of both the Great Bear and Bob Marshall wilderness designations, at least in part because of existing roads, and timber suitable for harvest and management. If there is salvageable wood, it should be salvaged quickly, on snow, to capture some lost value and help pay for rehabilitation – not left to luck.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.