Forest Service Using New Tech for Post-Fire Work in Montana

A team turned to technology to help it pinpoint the places needing emergency work

By Perry Backus, Missoulian
The Gibralter Ridge Fire burns east of Eureka on Aug. 8, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

MISSOULA – The work is only beginning for the U.S. Forest Service when the last wisp of smoke disappears from any large wildfire.

After more than 700,000 acres of national forest lands burned in Montana this summer, the agency decided the usual way of doing business wasn’t going to cut it this year.

Somewhere close to 2,000 fires were reported on national forest lands.

Thirty-six of those grew large enough to require what the agency calls a burned area emergency response (BAER). Those efforts consider everything from replacing culverts and reshaping roads to keep sediment from roaring down hillsides, to deciding which burned trees can be salvaged for timber and where trees will need to be planted.

The bulk of that work has to be done quickly in order to be ready for spring runoff and to ensure the timber that’s set aside for harvest retains its value for local mills.

In a normal year, most of that work would be accomplished by employees working on the individual forests where the fires started.

But more than 700,000 acres burned in a single season in one region isn’t normal.

Regional Forester Leanne Marten recognized that when she formed, for the first time, a regional post-fire response incident management team and charged it with using the most up-to-date technology to rapidly zero in on areas where both emergency work to protect the landscape and timber salvage could be accomplished.

Mike Elson led the 20-member team.

“The employees that normally do the BAER work are also the same employees who respond to the wildfires,” Elson said. “It was a really grueling and hard year. Employees are typically working 16 days, getting one day off every two weeks. They were breathing smoke and dealing with the anxiety that large fires bring just like everyone else. People were really wiped out at the end of the year and then they were faced with this huge workload.”

By taking a regional approach, Elson said the team could help those forests, like the Lolo, that faced work on numerous large fires and provide a consistent way of getting it accomplished.

“Like it or not, everything we do is highly scrutinized and we have to explain to a judge why we did it,” said the team’s deputy incident commander, Steve Brown. “If we are all doing it consistently, it becomes a whole lot easier to explain.”

With time of the essence, the team turned to technology to help it pinpoint the places needing emergency work to manage runoff, and places where burned timber could be salvaged.

“With so much devastation, we had to make decisions on where to put our attention,” said Vince Archer, the regional BAER coordinator.

During the past decade or so, the Northern Region has developed a vegetation database through satellite imagery and bio-physical modeling that was used in deciding where timber could be salvaged.

“That helped us identify, in a consistent manner on different forests, what the fire had burned through and where some of the opportunities for salvage might be found,” Brown said.

The maps allowed the agency to create a coarse filter that could identify areas that wouldn’t either be economically or environmentally feasible for timber salvage.

For instance, the Sunrise fire burned about 26,000 acres southeast of Superior.

Brown said when the team used the mapping resource to exclude areas that weren’t national forest lands or were considered wilderness, roadless or protected riparian areas, the potential acreage for salvage dropped to about 17,000.

The next filter looked at accessibility and marketability of the timber. The slopes adjoining roads couldn’t be more than 35 percent above road. The timber needed to be no more than 1,500 feet from the road. That cut the potential area down to about 9,000 acres.

Finally, the acreage that was left had to hold enough trees to make a salvage sale worthwhile to local mills.

Those areas that have a road to them are places where the agency has done previous timber management, which cut into the potential for salvage sales. To be considered, the team decided there had to be at least 5,000 board feet per acre with a minimum average stand size of a 10-inch diameter.

That reduced the amount of acreage available for salvage down to 2,400 acres, with the potential of about 22 million board feet.

After completing the analysis, the team determined that about 48,000 acres, or about 6.7 percent of what burned, had the potential for salvage timber sales, which could provide up to an estimated 516 million board feet.

But after working with the local wood products industry representatives about what they could actually harvest in the shortened time period that salvage timber would remain merchantable, Brown said the number dropped to somewhere between 250 million and 370 million board feet.

At this point, 11 fires have been selected for salvage projects, including Rice Ridge near Seeley Lake, Caribou near Eureka and Sunrise near Superior. Nine of the fires will require an environmental analysis before any salvage work will begin.

The region is applying for an emergency situation determination that would shorten the environmental analysis by 90 days by removing the objection period.

There are some fires where salvage isn’t being considered, including the Lolo Peak fire.

Brown said the main reason is capacity of both the Forest Service and industry.

“Once it went through the whole ranking process, it didn’t rank out as having high opportunity,” Brown said. “There are limited roads and where the roads are, there’s not a lot of merchantable timber.”

Most of the timber that could be harvested would require a skyline system. That’s the same system that will be used on other salvage sales in the area.

“With the ultimate goal is be able to sell these, Lolo Peak wouldn’t compete well with the other ones that will be offered,” Brown said.

It also takes good deal of time and effort to complete an environmental analysis.

“We already have to contract some of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis to handle just what we have now,” Brown said. “We could call in all the troops from across the region to focus just on this, but that would create a big impact to other work including the increases in expected output we are getting from Washington.”

Elson said industry representatives weren’t interested in making that trade-off.

“They don’t want to see a boom and bust cycle either,” Elson said.

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