Forest officials aim to inform on prescribed burns

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In this Oct. 28, 2008 file photo, a firefighter uses a drip torch during a prescribed burn of about 27 acres near Inskip, Calif. (Bill Husa/Chico Enterprise-Record via AP, File)

Officials with the Flathead National Forest are eyeing multiple large-scale prescribed burns for this fall, a few of which will be highly visible throughout the Flathead Valley, including one in the Mission Mountain Wilderness and another near Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Weather and other elements permitting, fire-management teams hope to implement the intentional fires from the Swan Valley over to Blacktail Mountain ski area, up to Whitefish and Glacier National Park and a few spaces in between. The primary concept behind the burns is to remove unwanted wildland fuels and debris in order to maintain favorable vegetative conditions, wildlife habitats and more.

Some of this season’s planned fires will include what officials describe as “landscape burns,” or a larger type of prescribed burn that may at times resemble an actual wildfire. Because smoke from the burns tends to put the public on edge, Flathead National Forest employees make a push to inform the public of the impending fires at the start of every fall season.

“We cannot emphasize enough that these are carefully planned, intentional fires. With landscape burning especially, we are trying to essentially mimick wildfires,” said Andy Huntsberger with the Hungry Horse and Glacier View Ranger District.

Some landscape burns, also known as ecosystem burns, include more than 1,000 acres at Lindy Ridge in the Mission Mountain Wilderness and about 750 acres near Whitefish Mountain Resort in the Whitefish Municipal Watershed.

According to Brent Olson with the Swan Lake Ranger District, in 2008 a fire ecologist identified multiple areas in the Mission Mountains and Swan Valley that could benefit from prescribed burns. The burns scheduled for Lindy Ridge are based on some of these findings.

“If we are able to successfully burn this area this will be the last landscape burn in the Mission Mountains for a while,” Olson said.

Justin Kaber with the Flathead National Forest Service said burning in the area just east of Whitefish Mountain Resort will attract a great deal of attention from Flathead County residents.

“Once we start burning, this is going to be extremely visible to the entire valley. There are 100,000 people here and most will have a view of it,” Kaber said.

Officials sought approval to burn the area in order to reduce the severity of any future wildfires. The precious watershed provides the City of Whitefish with the majority of its drinking water. Kaber said the burns on the mountain will be a challenge due to the steep nature of the landscape, which allows fires to travel quickly, among other obstacles. A successful fire would also improve elk and mule deer habitat, prepare grounds for planting native trees, and more.

Although Flathead National Forest officials are hoping to burn about 750 acres on the Whitefish mountain, Kaber said it is unlikely weather conditions will remain favorable enough to accomplish most of the objectives in their burn plan. He said they have been given years to complete the project, though.

Getting the greenlight to burn is a tedious process and requires the Forest Service to jump through many hoops. For example, the National Environmental Policy Act requires an environmental study on the prospective area. Hunstberger said for smaller projects, such as pile burns, the studies could take a few months. For landscape burns, getting the thumbs up could take years.

“There is a lot of planning and effort that goes into a prescribed burn,” Huntsberger said.

When a burn plan is finally approved, the weather needs to cooperate as well.

Flathead County experienced a light fire season this year compared to years past and a cool, wet August, which Huntsberger said presents challenges for burn season. The precipitation means fire teams need to wait until the fuels dry out further before they are able to burn — a waiting game that can consume the majority of the season. At the same time, however, a moist summer means crews have more control over the burns.

“It’s about getting the right prescription in place,” Huntsberger said. “The fuels need to be dry enough first of all, and then we need the weather to line up.”

Forest Service officials also say a wildfire season like this one means the public is less likely to be suffering from “smoke fatigue” and thus might be more accepting of prescribed burns.

Other general locations for scheduled prescribed burns, which range from pile burns to landscape burns of more than 1,000 acres, include Blacktail Mountain, Spotted Bear District, the Swan Valley, East and West Glacier National Park, Belton Hills, Polebridge, the Middle Fork River corridor, and others.

For updates on fire times and locations, it is recommended that the public refers to the Forest Service’s Facebook.

Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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