Bitterroot National Forest officials had hoped to burn nearly 2,000 acres in an effort reduce fuels this spring.
There’s not much chance that will happen.
A combination of late high country snow, a steady string of rainstorms and just enough warmth to get vegetation to start growing is quickly shutting the window for spring burning this season.
Last week, Jay Wood’s crew of Bitterroot Hotshots was joined by firefighters from as far away as Wisdom to try to get something done in the woods above the East Fork of the Bitterroot River.
Standing on the edge of the road, Wood considered the spotty patch of blackened areas scattered through forest just below him.
“It’s still a little bit too wet to burn very well,” said the fire boss. “And there’s some green coming up as well. It’s not really what you would call ideal.”
Every spring, firefighters on the Bitterroot Forest scatter with drip torches in hand to burn the understory from areas that have been thinned in an effort to reduce the chance of wildfire later in the summer.
The low-intensity understory burns help restore the characteristics of a fire-adapted ecosystem that a century of fire suppression has altered.
But some years are better than others for getting that work accomplished.
Early in the season, before the calls for fire crews start coming in from places farther south, national forests in Montana have the crews on hand to get some of that work done.
“We can get called out at any time,” Wood said. “We have no way of knowing when that might happen. When we’re still here, we try to do as much as this as possible.”
Last Thursday, the highly trained hotshot crew and engine crews from Darby and Sula donned their fire-resistant gear and took up their drip torches in hopes of burning about 200 acres of understory on a steep hillside far above the valley floor.
Working in single file, the crews dripped the flaming combination of gasoline and diesel just downhill from the first strip of forested land they had burned the day before.
The fire initially crept through the duff, dead brush and scattered twigs. It picked up steam as it burned up the steep hillside toward the black line just a few hundred feet above it.
“This is late in the year for this to get started,” said Bitterroot Forest spokesman Tod McKay. “Our window this year is going to be really short, especially if it starts to warm up too quickly. The conditions will get too severe.”
On this day, the firefighters had to wait a few hours for the humidity levels to drop low enough to offer them a chance for success. They would work almost until dark to get the project completed.
The day before, humidity levels were too high for the fire to really take off. When that happens, even quarter- to one-inch twigs won’t burn completely, said Jon Rupp.
“The fire would get into the old piles and that would create enough heat to get some of the nearby material burning,” Rupp said. “The snow just came off in the last month up here. There haven’t been that many days to dry things out. We’re going to be working in a highly condensed time period to get anything done.”
The rain that followed the few days of nice weather carried its own blessing.
“When we get that rain right after we burn, we don’t have to monitor afterwards nearly as long,” Wood said. “The opportunity for it to escape is pretty minimal. The rain just helps put it to bed.”