Shawn Stoker lost the best part of his summer’s labor to the Sawtooth fire.
But he takes some solace in knowing his efforts helped preserve about 80 acres of forest on this hillside just west of Hamilton.
Last week, the owner of High Mountain Enterprises walked through a portion of the forest burned by the Sawtooth fire where he and his crew had thinned earlier in the summer.
He and RC&D community forester Byron Bonney took note of the amount of green left in the crowns of the ponderosa pine trees scattered along the hill.
“See all of those with green tops,” Bonney said, his hand sweeping out toward the steep hillside. “Most of those will survive.”
The sight isn’t something new to Bonney.
He’s seen the same thing following fires at Tin Cup, Downing Mountain and Kootenai Creek. In areas where the trees were thinned, the fire dropped to the ground.
That ground fire burned off decades of duff and through stands of ninebark and other native brush. It left most of the ponderosa pine with charred bark, and even some brown needles.
But for the most part, the ground fire didn’t produce enough heat to kill the trees.
“These thinned areas also offer firefighters a huge advantage,” Bonnie said. “They give firefighters a place to make a stand.”
“We have a lot of success stories from thinning operations to show in the Bitterroot,” he said.
For Stoker, the Sawtooth fire couldn’t have been timed any worse.
He had close to 29 truckloads of logs piled and ready to haul to the mill when the fire broke out. The logs were stacked close to huge piles of brush that he had planned to burn later in the year.
Stoker saw photographs of the fire taken from space. He is convinced he can see the bright flare that shows the spot where his hard work went up in flames.
The two men can see evidence of just how hot that portion of the fire burned. Trees on the uphill side of where the log pile once stood are scorched 30 feet high.
“It could have been a lot worse here,” Stoker said. “Under the dry conditions that we were experiencing this year, if this area hadn’t been thinned when this fire hit, it would have been a total stand replacement fire.
“It would look just like the moon if it hadn’t been thinned,” he said. “You can see that in other places where this fire burned through untreated stands.”
Every year, the Bitter Root Resource, Conservation and Development area office offers hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to landowners willing to share the cost of making their properties safer from wildfire in Ravalli, Missoula and Mineral counties.
Those fuel mitigation grants are used to reduce the risk from wildfire on private lands by thinning trees, pruning undergrowth and treating slash.
To obtain a grant, landowners must be willing to contribute a 50/50 match to pay for the thinning project. That match can be through their own labor or paying half the cost of a contractor.
While the amount of work varies from year to year, Bonney said that typically close to 800 or 900 acres are thinned in the three-county area under the grant program. About half of that work occurs in Ravalli County.
Currently, there are 150 ongoing projects that range from an acre or two around a home to 30 acres in size. The cost to thin an acre can range from $600 to more than $1,500 depending on access, terrain and number of trees on the site.
Interest in the grant program picks up following a fire like the Sawtooth, which threatened upward of 400 residences at one point.
“We hear a lot from people during a fire and right after when it’s still vivid in their memories,” Bonney said. “They see what can happen and think ‘oh, my gosh. I need to do something around my own place.’ ”
On dry sites like those burned over in the Sawtooth fire, thinning can make a big difference in forest health.
“On these dry old hillsides, trees really need some space to be able to survive and be healthy,” Bonney said. “Thinning makes these trees healthier. They are not healthy when there are too many trees and they are all competing for what little water there is up here.”
Stoker said people have come to see an overstocked forest as natural.
“If these trees were animals, people would be shocked to see that we expect them to live without water,” he said. “Someone would be thrown into jail on animal cruelty charges. People think these overstocked stands are natural, but they’re not.”
“As soon as we humans started excluding fire from these stands of trees, the rules changed,” Stoker said. “We’re dealing with the consequences from that.”
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or email@example.com.