Earlier this week, Bitterroot National Forest firefighters were busy keeping a lightning-caused fire from burning out control.
Sometime in the next few days, some of those same firefighters might be using a drip torch to officially get the forest’s fall season of prescribed fire underway.
“It’s a balancing act for us this time of year,” said Bitterroot Fire Management Officer Mark Wilson. “Quite often, when we first start doing prescribed fire in the fall, we still have staff ready to meet any wildland fire needs.”
The wildfire that popped up earlier this week came at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
Wilson said the fire in the West Fork District was likely started by a lightning storm that came through the area about a week before.
“It was probably skunking around on the ground and then it popped up when it got some wind on it,” Wilson said. “With the dry conditions and the potential for a cold front coming in, we didn’t want to let it do its thing.”
Two helicopters and crews on the ground kept the fire at about an acre and a half.
Now Wilson and other forest fire officials are looking for the right conditions to begin burning upward of 2,200 acres scattered across the forest this fall.
On Thursday, crews set the first small prescribed fire in the East Fork of the Bitterroot at a location where the fuels were lighter than what’s found nearer the valley floor.
“That’s probably going to be our plan,” Wilson said. “We will initially be focused up on the East Fork where those lighter fuels need drier conditions to carry a fire. As we get some moisture, we will move into the valleys where the heavier fuels are located. It might be a while before we can get to that stuff in the valley.”
The planned burns consist of burning piles of slash from thinning and timber harvest projects to prescribed burns across the forest floor that reduce fuel and restore characteristics of a fire-adapted ecosystem.
Smoke from the burns will likely be visible at times from the West and East Fork roads and Highway 93. The smoke that’s produced typically is short-lived.
Wilson said most of the prescribed fires on the Bitterroot National Forest tend to be in smaller blocks due to the proximity of the wildland/urban interface.
“That does make it somewhat more manageable,” Wilson said.
Wilson worked previously as the fire management officer on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest where prescribed fire was used to burn through upwards of 5,000 acres of dead or damaged lodgepole pine in areas that were not accessible for timber harvest.
“Managing smoke from fires that large is as much an art as it is a science,” Wilson said. “You do some modeling and work with state and air quality experts … We do the same thing here. We look at the weather forecast, wind flow models and dispersion forecasts to see how well the smoke will lift and move out. We try to minimize the impacts.
“Everything narrows the window that we have to burn in the fall,” Wilson said. “Depending on where the land where we want to do some burning is located, the window can be quite narrow.
“We have folks out there preparing the site and checking fuel moisture levels one or two weeks in advance,” he said.
There are 1,000 acres identified for potential burning this fall in both the Darby/Sula and West Fork ranger districts. There are between five or six different areas in each district where the proposed fires will occur. There is an additional 200 acres east of Stevensville that could be burned this fall.
Prescribed burning on the Bitterroot Forest in the fall normally takes place between September and November.