Steve Jess is on the road, a few miles south of Helena, trailing a convoy carrying Senator Steve Daines and an assortment of local officials. They travel down about 20 miles of dirt road and the occasional cattle guard to a site just yards from the Chessman reservoir, where many of the surrounding hills bear the corpses of lodgepole pines killed by the mountain pine beetle.
They all get out of the cars, and Daines confers with Bill Avey, Helena National Forest Supervisor, about the work in progress to clear out the dead pines to reduce the fire risk.
Later, speaking to reporters, Avey explains that some areas at the south end of the reservoir have already been cleared of trees, and others are scheduled for clearing.
Avey describes the scene, “What you’re seeing right here is some units moving to completion right around the reservoir. We started work on this project last summer. We hope to be done with it this summer. It’s really about point protection of the reservoir and the conveyance flume that takes the water into the reservoir so we can help protect the city of Helena’s water supply."
He continues, "What we’re doing is reducing fuel loading there by removing the fuel itself to ensure that when the fire comes through there that it’s going to burn at a cool enough temperature to keep the soils in place and from eroding and filling up the reservoir, and reestablish vegetation on-site quickly.”
Avey says if a fire started in this area, not only would it burn trees on the watershed, but the fire could reach the Helena City Limits in as little as four hours. That’s especially important as Montana endures an unusually hot summer with the fire danger in some places listed as ‘extreme.’
“We are not quite there yet but we are in high or very high fire danger conditions right now," Avey says. "Our energy release component, which is basically of intensity of burning, our fuels are showing us that we’re on track to exceed the highest level ever recorded.”
Daines says he’s pleased to see state, federal and local officials working together to mitigate the fire risk, and adds that Washington needs to make some changes.
“We need to change the way we fund wildfires," Daines says. "Treat these as a natural disaster like a tornado or a hurricane so our forest service is spending their dollars focused on making our forest healthier through treatment, than having to set aside dollars for wildfires.”
He continues, “Second we need to reward collaboratives. We need to continue to be sure that are actively managing our forest to reduce the wildfire risk. It creates jobs, it reduces the wildfire risk, it also protects the environment as you see behind me here with the watershed for Helena.”
“Actively managing the forests” typically means salvage logging, a subject that draws ire from environmentalists like Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
“When Senator Daines says we should go out and log watersheds," Garrity explains, "all that will do is cost taxpayers money, create more jobs for bureaucrats and provide more corporate welfare for the timber industry.”
He says, on top of being corporate welfare, it may not even work as a tactic to reduce fire risk, because loggers harvest the trunks of the trees but leave behind branches, which are still fuel for fires.
“About five years ago," Garrity says, "the town of Seeley Lake almost burned down, and that’s some of the most heavily logged forest in the country around Seeley Lake, so that logging did nothing to help reduce fire threat.”
Garrity bases his claim on a study by Mark Finney of the Forest Service’s Fire Lab in Missoula. Finney told a gathering in Helena recently that prescribed burning, rather than logging, is the best way to reduce fire risk from dead trees.
But a separate report, published by NASA about five years ago, casts doubt on whether trees that fall prey to beetles are much of a fire risk at all. In fact, some trees killed by beetles may be less likely to burn, because the needles of a beetle-infested tree first lose their oil content and then fall off, and needles are the most flammable part of a pine tree.