HAMILTON – A snowy winter and a wet spring in western Montana are making it hard to conduct prescribed burns to reduce the risk of wildfires later in the year, federal forest managers said.
The Bitterroot National Forest hoped to burn about 3 square miles (8 square kilometers) this spring, the Missoulian newspaper reported Sunday.
“It’s still a little bit too wet to burn very well,” said Jay Wood, fire boss of the Bitterroot Hotshots, a wildfire-fighting crew. “And there’s some green coming up as well. It’s not really what you would call ideal.”
Firefighters use prescribed burns to remove dried vegetation, fallen pine needles and other material from the forest floor in areas where trees have already been thinned.
The low-intensity fires help restore the forest to more natural, fire-resistant conditions that existed before fire suppression was commonplace.
Bitterroot National Forest officials try to get their prescribed burns done early in the season, before they get called to fight wildfires elsewhere. The wet conditions have delayed that.
“This is late in the year for this to get started,” said Bitterroot Forest spokesman Tod McKay. “Our window this year is going to be really short, especially if it starts to warm up too quickly. The conditions will get too severe.”
Last week, crews had to wait several hours for the humidity to drop enough for a 200-acre (1-square-kilometer) prescribed burn. Because of the late start, they worked nearly until dark to finish.
The day before, the humidity was too high for the fire to burn well.
The rainy weather helps in one way, Wood said, by making it easier for crews to keep prescribed burns under control.
“When we get that rain right after we burn, we don’t have to monitor afterwards nearly as long,” he said. “The opportunity for it to escape is pretty minimal. The rain just helps put it to bed.”
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