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How prescribed burns prepare Montana to better fight wildfires

Posted at 1:33 PM, Oct 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-25 12:14:44-04

BILLINGS – Smoke billowed from a hillside just south of Roundup on Tuesday as fire ate away at underbrush and occasionally enveloped a larger tree, but there was no panic or sirens because this was a planned fire, years in the making.

Prescribed burns are a key part of wildland fire safety and are carefully planned by the Bureau of Land Management to make sure everything goes as expected, says Chris Barth a Public Information Officer for the BLM

No details are overlooked. The planning process accounts for terrain, fuel type and up to date weather reports. A prescribed burn begins with an altering of fuel structures by hand-cutting, a procedure that takes places in the years leading up to the prescribed burn.

The fires serve multiple purposes, all of which are aimed at healthier Montana ecosystems. First and foremost the fires remove excess fuels from wildland areas, a process that will increase the resiliency of the area to future wildfires.

“There’s a big bed of fuel that can burn with more intensity and be more volatile. So coming through and reducing that buildup of fuels ensures that when a fire does come through it is going to burn in a more historical way… and will be easier to control should it get started,” says Barth.

Secondly, the fires cycle nutrients back into the soil, as the ash left over as the fire consumes underbrush spends all winter being absorbed into the topsoil, Barth says.

In turn, this allows for a strong spring growing season which creates a nutrient-rich environment for the wildlife that roams these areas.

Prescribed Burns
Crews work to execute a prescribed burn near Roundup on Tuesday. (MTN News photo)

Crews work to execute a prescribed burn near Roundup on Tuesday,
Tuesday afternoon was the perfect afternoon to witness a prescribed burn, for one, the wind was almost perfectly slack, which is an ideal condition for controlling a prescribed fire. An additional benefit of this for an onlooker was the remarkable state of calm that existed at our vantage point before the flames crept over the ridge.

It was almost silent as we waited for the crews to get close, and the fire could be heard before it was visible. Slowly, the tranquil afternoon began to crackle and pop.

The first crew member to emerge was in the process of setting a blackline around the burn unit. The blackline is a narrow strip of land that is burned in advance to create a boundary for the flames.

He was followed closely by another crew member walking and two in a UTV, all carefully watching to make sure these initial flames stayed right where they were supposed to.

In his hand he carried a drip torch, most closely resembling a large, upside-down kerosene lamp with a metal wick. The torch is filled with a mix of fuel and diesel that slowly funnels down the wick, keeping the end lit and slowly dropping puddles of flame onto the landscape.

In the span of half an hour, the crews had drawn the blackline roughly 100 yards and the fire was already fully out across almost all of that distance. The second crew was slightly further back, creating strips across the burn unit and occasionally larger trees could be seen to go up in a rush of flames.

Barth emphasized the effort that goes into planning and the cooperation that take place long before any drip torches are lit. He said that oftentimes there is multiagency cooperation between the BLM the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and private landowners.

The BLM is not the only agency conducting prescribed burns. The Bureau of Indian affairs has conducted multiple prescribed burns in recent days. A burn near the town of Hays was the first burn on the Fort Belknap reservation in 20 years.

BIA spokesman and Fire Supervisor Jon Kohn re-iterated the interagency cooperation that goes into a successful prescribed fire and says that in their case there has been great cooperation between multiple tribes.

Barth assures me that if I was to return to the same spot in the spring it would be lush, green, and healthy and that ultimately the goal of these fires is a safer and healthier Montana for all of us.

-Connor Pregizer reporting for MTN News