STEVENSVILLE — STEVENSVILLE - Leaders of the Bitterroot National Forest are re-starting their efforts to come up with a sweeping plan to manage the risk of wildfire after putting the work on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The objective is to create a proactive approach to protect some of the most threatened communities in Montana from catastrophe.
Ravalli County has the greatest risk of wildfire in Montana, with six communities in the top 10 with buildings that could burn. And with the US Forest Service (USFS) launching its sweeping new Wildfire Crisis Strategy, the Bitterroot National Forest is ready to act.
"It's all about reducing fire risk," Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown told MTN News. "You know there's a national effort out of the Washington office to prioritize the funding that we do have, and being proactive in areas where it makes the most sense."
"And nationally, the Bitterroot has five of the top 100 fire sheds, they're calling them, that are at highest risk for impacting communities, and so if we're going to invest our money we want to invest in places like that," Brown added. "And the Bitterroot is one of those places and the Bitterroot Front is the place here in Ravalli County."
Two years ago, initial meetings for the "Bitterroot Front Plan" generated some support, but also concerns about road building and public access. Now, the effort is being re-booted, with a 30-day window for public comment.
"And we have a good idea from our internal specialist communications or ID team, what sort of issues we should be addressing in our environmental assessment? But it's an opportunity for the public to really let us know, 'hey, we, we would really like you to consider this as well," says Brown.
The Bitterroot Front Plan is as much about forest health as fire risk.
"Right now because of fire suppression the landscape, it's not in the right condition to even be able to use prescribed fire in most places," Brown said. "We've got to do a lot of work to get it down to where we could use prescribed fire as a low-cost maintenance tool."
We've seen that approach at the Bass Creek Recreation Area, where the agency has used thinning, removing beetle kill trees and prescribed burns over the past decade, improving forest health. The plan would create a "toolbox" that can be used from Florence, all the way south to Darby.
"It's going to take some involvement on the front end of whether it's mechanical thinning or hand thinning or something to thin out those stands," Brown relates. "So that then we can use fire and it doesn't result in, you know, stand replacing fire."
"It really is just something that can be used to clean up those fuels and set the landscape up so when we do, have a wildifire, because we will. It's not a matter of if. We have a better fighting chance of stopping that you know affecting that fire behavior in a positive way," Brown concluded.
More information can be found on the Bitterroot National Forest website.