MTPR

For Montana Fire Evacuees, Forest Thinning Didn't Happen Soon Enough

Aug 4, 2016

Firefighters call the Roaring Lion Fire one of the worst they've ever seen. A common refrain among evacuees: The Forest Service should more aggressively thin forests to prevent fires and create jobs.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Montana, a fire dubbed the roaring lion is burning on national forestland, land that was scheduled for a logging project aimed at preventing fires just a couple of weeks from now. Instead, that fire has destroyed 14 homes and more than 11 square miles of thick timber. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney has more.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Earlier this week, fire evacuee Chris Anderson was unloading a big horse trailer at the county fairgrounds in Hamilton, Mont., about an hour south of Missoula.

CHRIS ANDERSON: My kids' high school rodeo horses - couple of them are pretty irreplaceable to the kids right now so...

WHITNEY: Anderson used to work cutting trees to feed local timber mills. Seeing a forest burn makes him angry.

ANDERSON: Logging - and that probably could have helped saved it, you know? There used to be seven mills in this valley. And now there's none.

WHITNEY: Anderson blames lawsuits and the U.S. Forest Service for the problem. Outside a crowded public meeting, local district ranger Eric Winthers says the lack of logging is not for lack of trying.

ERIC WINTHERS: You know, we're always trying to do projects to reduce the danger of fire to the publics that live next door.

WHITNEY: The project to thin the forest to prevent fires was in the works for five years. The Forest Service worked through local concerns and approved the project. There's a popular perception here that environmentalists sue to stop every logging project on public land. That's not true.

In this case, right before the work was set to begin, an adjacent landowner sued because he didn't want a road built across his property for the project. When the fire broke out Sunday, the Forest Service was waiting to see if a judge would allow the forest thinning to go forward. Firefighters don't expect the roaring lion fire to be brought under control anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula.