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Scientist studies impact of Roaring Lion

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HAMILTON, Mont. - Despite the devastation of the Roaring Lion fire near Hamilton last summer the fire's impact is providing a Missoula professor with important information.

Peter Kolb is a PhD forestry specialist with the Montana State University Extension Service.

Roaring Lion is a visible example of a wildland urban interface, that zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development.

Kolb has been researching the trees on private land that were killed or severely damaged in the fire.

Dr. Kolb took NBC Montana to several sites where the fire burned.

In the upper reaches of an area where the fire did some of its most severe damage Kolb stood on private land where almost all the trees were gone. It had been a dense forest until the fire of 2016.

The professor said heat and high winds killed the trees. He pointed to charred snags where wind had sheared off their tops.

Most of the area has been salvaged logged. But he said prior to the fire it had not been thinned.

He stood in the now open area with burned trees in the background. Behind those dead trees were trees that are still living.

"Wherever you see green behind me," he said," is where the thinning started. These are different ownerships where those land owners had thinned their forest."

He said few seedlings sprouted in the area where there were no longer living trees. He said the most severely burned areas will convert to meadows.

He said after the fire landowners had different objectives on how to treat their land.

"In this private land ownership dominated wildland urban interface," he said," are multiple habitats and multiple management objectives which add to the overall bio-diversity."

He said one landowner for instance "opted to leave quite a few fire killed trees as snags for cavity nesting birds."

Kolb said a wildland urban interface like this can be a challenge for firefighters in defending homes and residents from fast intense fires like Roaring Lion.

But he said they can also be a buffer.

"Because what these landowners do," he said," is to prevent a wildland fire from burning into a community."

Kolb said thinning slowed the Roaring Lion fire down.

He said he learned that thinned forests can survive more heat than those that are not thinned.

In fact, in many of those private landholdings that had been thinned there are bumper crops of new seedlings.

Soon after the fire, fuels reduction logger Shawn Stoker began harvesting fire affected trees for homeowners.

Stoker worked with Dr. Kolb to decide which scorched trees had the best chance of survival.

"Landowners want as many trees that are 80-years old left standing as possible," he said.

So far Stoker has harvested 300 acres of private land in the Roaring Lion area. He said most landowners want their places to be selectively logged, leaving trees that have a chance of staying alive.

In certain areas he sees thick carpets of seedlings.

"In some areas there as many as 33 seedlings growing per square foot," he said. " With all the regeneration that has happened after the fire it will be a jungle if people don't proactively manage their regeneration. There are more trees growing here now than there were before."

The logger said the Roaring Lion area has been logged before. He showed us a felled mature pine tree that grew in after past logging.

He said in its early years its growth rings were wide but became thinner as more trees began to crowd it.

That log and others in that pile were heading to a Bitterroot mill to be turned into boards, beams and siding.

Many logs are heading to Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake.

But Stoker said the timber is deteriorating quickly. He showed us a pile of smaller logs that can only be used as firewood. And some trees are stained blue from pine beetle infestation, which debilitates the tree.

Stoker said he will be busy all summer harvesting fire killed trees. Those trees will make way for new seedlings in some areas of Roaring Lion.

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