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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Prescribed Burns Across Montana Target Fuel Buildup, Invasive Weeds

Residual smoke from the previous day's underburn operations north of the Main Rattlesnake Trailhead near Missoula, MT, Oct. 17, 2019.
Lolo National Forest
Residual smoke from the previous day's underburn operations north of the Main Rattlesnake Trailhead near Missoula, MT, Oct. 17, 2019.

It’s fall and that means it’s prescribed fire season in Montana. Wildland managers are now intentionally setting fires to reduce forest fuel buildup or to restore native vegetation.

Two prescribed wildfire operations just north of Missoula produced dense smoke that degraded air quality to unhealthy levels Wednesday night into Thursday morning. As weather forecasters predicted though, a cold front pushed into the region Thursday afternoon, increasing winds which helped dissipate the smoke.

Missoula City/County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield says cool, wet weather’s in the forecast which will probably further improve air quality.

Local wildland managers are considering using more prescribed burns in the Missoula area to help mitigate wildfire risks. Coefield says these projects are delicate balancing acts.

"There’s a lot of great reasons to have prescribed burning. I personally think it’s really important for the ecosystem to have prescribed burning happening. And it can help change wildfire behavior if you’ve done a good job with your forest management. But it’s always that balance of trying to make sure that we time those burns as best we can so they don’t impact public health."

A prescribed fire in Yellowstone National Park this week focused on invasive weeds. Wednesday’s burn about three miles northwest of Gardiner targeted the seeds of two annual weeds: wheatgrass and desert alyssum.

Roy Renkin is a vegetation specialist with the park. He describes those weeds, wheatgrass in particular, as "beasts" that consume native grasslands in the intermountain west.

"I mean, it just takes off and what it does is it just sucks all the moisture out of the soil to the detriment of perennial grass and shrubs; particularly grass species that are only just turning on their machinery for the summer. Yeah, it has that beast mode mentality to it."

Renkin says Wednesday’s 16 acre burn proceeded without a hitch.

The Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, plans burns in Silver Bow, Beaverhead, Lewis and Clark and Jefferson counties in the coming months.

The Bureau of Land Management ignited a 270 acre burn in the Bull Mountains north of Billings on Thursday. The prescribed fire aimed to prevent the kind of wildfire that decimated the area in 2012.

A handful of firefighters Thursday walked along the edges of a forested valley and left a trail of fire behind them. Controlled burns like this one eat up dry grasses and other fuels a wildfire would feed off of. It’s the third time over five years the BLM has done a burn like this in the area. That’s according to BLM forestry technician Tag O’Donnell.

"I’m glad that we’re getting these going in here. The Bull Mountains have a long fire history, large catastrophic fires, lots of loss of infrastructure."

O'Donnell specifically referenced the Dahl Fire. In 2012, lightning caused a 22,000-acre fire that burned more than 70 homes in the area.

"Everybody got concerned and started taking fuel mitigation actions on their private property, or a number of landowners did, and we're just kinda moving on from there."

He says their intended burn area of 270 acres includes federal, state, and private lands. O’Donnell said the burn is expected to take just one day.

"As soon as the sun goes down, the temperature's gonna go down with it, the humidity’s gonna go up and so we’re gonna lose our burn window."

BLM spokesperson Al Nash says around 30 people from BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Billings Fire Department were on site.

He says he doesn’t have a cost estimate for this operation

"But if you look at a cost per acre of a prescribed fire versus what it costs to respond to a wildland fire, this is extraordinarily cost effective."

Get the latest wildfire, fire management and air quality news for Western Montana and the Northern Rockies, on your radio during our morning and evening newscasts, via podcast, or in your inbox each day.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
(406) 243-4065
Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
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