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Butte wildfire plan includes thinning fuels to protect water supply

reservoir plan.jpg
Posted at 3:44 PM, Jul 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-22 17:45:05-04

BUTTE - Butte-Silver Bow has initiated an update to its wildfire protection plan and the priority is to protect one of its most important resources: its drinking water.

“It’s just a disaster area of fallen and standing lodgepole pine, so if we had a wildfire in this watershed it’d likely be a really high-intensity fire,” said Butte Water Department Chief Operator Jim Keenan.

One part of the county’s wildfire protection plan is to thin out fuel around the Basin Creek Reservoir south of Butte, which can hold up to 364 million gallons of the city’s drinking water.

A wildfire in the area could contaminate the water with soot and debris and could damage the county’s newly-built water treatment plant.

“The reservoir would likely have to be dredged, the pipeline between this reservoir and the water treatment plant could be plugged, so it could cause millions and millions of dollars in damage to this water supply and take a decade or more for this water supply to recover,” said Keenan.

So far, the county’s cleared out about 16 acres of timber area around the reservoir. They put them in piles which they plan to burn sometime in the fall when conditions are safer.

They hope before the summer ends to clear out another 18 acres in the reservoir area.

“Doing thinning, getting dead material off the ground and put it into all them piles, it kind of opens up the forest and reduces the possibility of fire jumping from limb to limb,” said Keenan.

Basin Creek provides about 60% of Butte’s water supply with the rest coming from the Big Hole River, the Moulton Reservoir north of Butte, and other smaller watersheds.

Wildfire protection involves more than just water.

“Areas where they’re homes and structures that need to be protected, so we’re looking at area power lines and cellphone towers, so it’s going to be a real collaborative effort,” Keenan said.

The U.S. Forest Service is expected to be thinning out wooded areas around the reservoir as well.

In end, the county expects to spend up to $70,000 clearing the reservoir area.

They say it beats the millions it would cost in wildfire damage.