Forester wants to update Bitterroot wildfire plan


HAMILTON, Mont. - The Roaring Lion Fire near Hamilton last summer was a tragic reminder of just how unforgiving wild land fires can be.

But the fire that took 16 houses in one of the Bitterroot's most devastating disasters was also a learning experience.

Bitterroot Resource Conservation Development community forester Byron Bonney met with Ravalli County commissioners Thursday.

He told them what we have learned from the Roaring Lion Fire and how preparing against crown fires can save property.

He is also asking the county to research funding to update the Bitterroot's community wild fire protection plan.

Bonney said it is time to update the 11-year-old plan. He said areas that maybe weren't such high risk a decade ago may be high risk today.

"It's changed because of population growth in the county," he said. "It's changed because of the change in fuels."

Bonney said, "We need to understand where wildfire may threaten a growing community."

He said maps need to be updated to show were people are living in the wild land urban interface and what kinds of fuels surround them.

Although mountain pine beetle infestations have declined somewhat in the valley, he said we need better pinpoints on what areas are infested.

"And," he said, "what are the areas being damaged now and are increasing that risk."

The forester said action plans need updating to reduce fuels and fire risk to help firefighters safely and more effectively suppress fires.

He advises property owners on how to make their homes safer from wild land fire, like clearing trees from houses, reducing fuels around buildings and creating barriers like gravel as buffers.

He said before fire raced through Roaring Lion RCD worked on 21 thinning projects in the area.

Many houses whose property had been thinned of excess fuels were saved.

"The thinnings that we did on those private properties did the job they were designed to do," he said. "They reduced the risk."

Bonney said embers took some buildings that had been treated. But he said homeowners could reduce ember fires by using more fire-resistant building materials.

Bonney showed NBC Montana a stand of ponderosa pine trees on private property near Blodgett Canyon.

The area had been thinned so it was more open. Trees left standing have more room to grow. They are more resistant to disease and crown fires.

Bonney said we need to improve forest health and to "treat landscapes to accept fire," and to survive it.

He calls it "fire-adapted community."

"It can live with fire," he said, "and is not threatened so much by fire."

He said it makes it easier for protection agencies to respond to a fire and put it out.

Ravalli County commissioners did not take any action Thursday. But members of the board said the plan should be updated, because a lot has changed in 11 years.

Commissioners said they will work with emergency service providers and will research ways to fund an update.

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