The Flathead National Forest is preparing for a number of prescribed fires this fall, including a highly visible one near Whitefish.
The U.S. Forest Service is prepared to ignite at least a dozen fires ranging from 10 or 20 acres to more than 1,000 acres, as well as numerous burn piles across the forest. Officials say the objective is to return fire to areas that have not burned in a number of decades and reduce the danger a fire might pose in an area should it ignite at the height of fire season.
Rick Connell, fire management officer for the Flathead National Forest, said that while the agency has plans for numerous fires across the forest, weather and fire conditions would dictate how many of those are actually set.
“We already have the plans; it really just depends on what Mother Nature gives us,” he said. “The fall burn window is finicky, but we’re looking for those windows.”
Connell said prescribed burns could have different objectives, including reducing fire danger or helping wildlife. Connell recalled one instance when he was working in Wyoming, where an area was burned so that mountain goats could safely travel from their summer home to their winter home without being bothered by mountain lions that hid behind trees and attacked without warning. In other areas, a prescribed burn can create a natural break between thick forest and a populated area.
Before any prescribed fire is set, the Forest Service does an extensive study to ensure that any proposed project is in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, better known as NEPA. The studies can take years and are hundreds of pages long. Once the study has been completed, officials have to wait for just the right conditions to light a prescribed burn. Connell said it has to be dry enough to burn but not windy to avoid a fire getting out of control. Ideally, prescribed burns are set a few days before a rain event. The agency also needs to get approval from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to ensure a safe air quality in the area. Some years, few fires are set because the conditions aren’t right.
One of the most visible prescribed burns this fall will be near Whitefish Mountain Resort. The Whitefish Municipal Watershed Prescribed Burn will take place just east of the resort on five different pieces of land ranging in size from 36 acres to 268 acres. The objective of the fires is to reduce the likelihood of a crown fire, reduce stand density, improve mule deer and elk habitat and prepare areas for planting native whitebark pine trees. The fires will be set with a helicopter.
Other planned fires include 1,104 acres on Lindy Ridge adjacent to the Mission Mountain Wilderness; the Lion Creek Drainage and Meadow Creek areas in the Swan Valley; the Truman Creek drainage between Kila and Lakeside; the Stone Creek drainage near Blacktail Mountain; 17 acres near Radnor; 1,114 acres just north of Polebridge; 916 acres on five different units near West Glacier; 622 acres on four different units along the Middle Fork Flathead River corridor; 20 acres near Coram; and a number of burns in the Spotted Bear Ranger District.
Forest Service officials suggest the public keep an eye on the agency’s Facebook and Twitter profiles for the latest information regarding when the fires will be set.