HELENA — All up and down the side of Mount Helena, you can see large brush piles. They’re reminders that the area has been undergoing wildfire fuel mitigation work – and state and local leaders agree that work made a big difference as firefighters tried to get control of a fire on the mountain last month.
On Monday, Gov. Greg Gianforte joined Helena city leaders on Mount Helena to tout the value of active forest management in addressing wildfire risk.
Brad Langsather, the city of Helena’s open lands manager, said August’s wildfire showed the public just how real the threat of fire is.
“They not only got to see the tactics that were deployed, but the citizens got to see the effect of active forest management and the impact that it can have on fire behavior,” he said.
The fire burned 18 acres. Langsather said crews had already treated some of those areas. They thinned out trees – leaving more room between them – and removed branches up to 6 or 8 feet above ground level. The brush piles were set to be burned in the winter, once weather conditions were safer.
Their goal was to help keep fires from spreading into the crowns of trees.
“Once the fire enters the upper canopy, it increases the likelihood of casting embers ahead of the fire and makes it more difficult for those responding to the event to deploy the particular tactics that they’re going to use,” Langsather said. “In this case, we had helicopters cycling water and knocking down hotspots – well, if they’ve got access to the forest floor from above, it makes those tactics more effective.”
Langsather said ponderosa pines grow better with full sunlight. By putting more space between trees, he said they can grow larger, stronger and more resistant to fire and to insects.
Fuel mitigation work like this certainly isn’t one-time-only. Langsather said areas like the Mount Helena foothills probably need to be treated every 10 years or so.
Gianforte has made active forest management a priority for his administration, urging the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to double the number of acres it treats each year.
“We’ve identified 9 million acres that are in desperate need of active management,” he said. “Everyone wins when we manage forests actively: they’re more fire resilient, we have more habitat, there’s more access for recreation, and it creates jobs in our communities.”
During Monday’s event, DNRC director Amanda Kaster also announced the expansion of a “Good Neighbor Authority” agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service. That will bring in another $238,000 to treat 1,270 acres of Forest Service land in the Tenmile-South Helena and Middleman areas.
Under the Good Neighbor Authority, USFS reaches agreements with state and local agencies to do management projects on federally-owned land. Leaders say it’s an example of the type of partnerships – across jurisdictional boundaries – that are needed to make a difference in fuel mitigation.