MISSOULA — Spring is normally a great time to burn unwanted vegetation, but not this spring for the Lolo National Forest.
Anyone who has traveled around the valley over the past few weeks has seen numerous columns of smoke twisting up from among the trees. Residents have taken advantage of warmer but still moist conditions to burn piles of leaves or slash on their property.
But none of those smoke tendrils have been rising from public land around Missoula, such as the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. That’s because the Lolo National Forest has decided against conducting prescribed burns during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though USFS employees would love to be out.
The Lolo National Forest had been planning to conduct controlled burns on 2,000 to 5,000 acres in dozens of projects forest-wide between April and June, as conditions allow. Usually by mid- to late-June, the summer is becoming too warm and dry to burn safely and managers have to wait until cooler conditions return in the fall.
As part of those projects, Lolo NF was hoping to burn about 1,000 acres in the Missoula area in order to reduce the local wildfire risk. But the Missoula valley presents a bit of a challenge with its tendency toward temperature inversions that lock smoke in the valley and its higher population. So, managers have to be poised to act whenever favorable winds and weather conditions are predicted and when other fires aren’t burning. They hate it when they have to let the rare opportunity pass by.
But right now, it’s not worth the risk to Lolo National Forest employees, said Lolo NF spokesperson Katelyn Jerman.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet provided any direction to the Forest Service on how it’s supposed to conduct prescribed burns or fight wildfires during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So the Lolo NF conducted a risk assessment and decided against conducting prescribed burns this spring. The main concerns were keeping employees separate enough to avoid catching the virus, trying to limit or eliminate crew transport using trucks to the sites and especially between states, and not knowing if the resulting smoke might exacerbate some of the symptoms of COVID-19 in those battling the disease.
Jerman said plans for prescribed burns in the fall were still up in the air, and forest managers would continue to monitor the situation.
With no direction from the top, not all agencies are responding the same.
The Montana-Dakota Region of the Bureau of Land Management announced Monday that the Dillon Office would be conducting prescribed burns on BLM land west of Dillon. Fire managers from the BLM and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation are overseeing the burns.
Tuesday, BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs William Perry Pendley emphasized that reducing wildfire risk and suppressing wildfires was his primary focus for the BLM.
After some state governments have said they would not send state or local fire resources to fires outside their jurisdiction because of the risk of spreading COVID-19, Pendley has been applying pressure to get them to commit to cooperating with the BLM Fire and Aviation program.
“We are committed to protecting our colleagues in the BLM and those with whom we come in contact during this challenging time; however, as westerners, we know we must fight fire all year long and we will do exactly that,” Pendley said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “Guided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local health authorities, we continue to implement proactive COVID-19 measures to protect employees and the public, but, when it comes to fire, we have no intention of standing down.”
The U.S. Forest Service is developing a COVID-19 wildland fire response plan. But it has yet to be published, and crews are already battling fires in Texas and Florida.
The National Interagency Fire Center outlook predicts that parts of Washington, Oregon and northern California have above normal wildfire potential starting in July.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org