BY MARTIN KIDSTON
No one wants wildfires near Missoula, but the Beeskove fire wasn’t a bad one to have if one has to burn.
That was the message Sen. Steve Daines heard from U.S. Forest Service and Missoula County employees who have spent the past two to three weeks trying to keep the Beeskove Fire contained in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area.
Daines stopped at the temporary fire camp on Butler Creek Road on Wednesday afternoon as part of his state tour while Congress is on summer recess. The scene was much more relaxed than two years ago, when Daines visited firefighters battling the Lolo Peak Fire.
All of the fire experts who participated in Daines’ presentation said the Beeskove Fire has been kept at bay so far by this year’s cooler weather, and vegetation that hasn’t really dried out in the drainage bottoms. It’s nothing like the extremely dry conditions that prompted the Lolo Peak Fire.
The Beeskove Fire put on one growth spurt a few weeks ago due to a warm-up near the beginning of August where almost two weeks of daytime highs in the mid-90s caused things to start drying out. But last weekend’s storms stopped that, dropping about an inch of rain, said fire-team long-term analyst Tonja Opperman.
“A significant rain event to fire people is anything more than a half-inch,” Opperman said. “If that had happened at the end of September, we would have called it a ‘season-ender.’ But it’s only mid-August, and there’s still time for the season to get warmer and drier so we call it a season-slowing event.”
USFS Public Information Officer Peri Suenram said the fire size remains at 429 acres, where it’s remained since Aug. 5.
Operations Section Chief Paul Diaz showed Daines how crews have used roads, trails and old wildfire burns to augment fire lines around the fire. As of Wednesday morning, the fire was almost 50 percent contained.
The presenters emphasized the fact that many agencies had come together to do their parts, from building fire lines to conducting fire assessments in areas nearby, such as Marshall Mountain and Grant Creek.
Diaz said the Nature Conservancy had been helpful in closing its lands to the east, while Northwestern Energy helped with clearing areas around high-voltage power lines.
“This fire highlights the cooperation that occurs 365 days a year here in Missoula County with the Forest Service and the (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) as well as other agencies in how we prepare for the eventual wildfire that impacts our citizens. Unfortunately, that’s a common thing for us,” said Adriane Beck, Missoula County emergency management director.
Daines praised the fire team’s efforts and was fascinated by the new firefighting technology, including computer models and drones that sense fire hotspots.
“It was clear, the cooperation that was noted right out of the gate. Thank you for staying focused on the mission and working together, and not on egos and turf,” Daines said.
The Beeskove Fire improved Missoula’s wildfire preparedness by prompting rapid assessment teams to visit more than 500 houses and other structures over four days to determine their survivability in the event of a fire. Now that information is part of the database for Wildfire Adapted Missoula and the Missoula community protection plan.
“It’s a huge win for our public cooperators and Missoula city fire and everyone else – the structure assessment and protection plan is able to live even longer than these lines that were established. It’s a huge plus for those folks to be able to pull that up at any time,” Diaz said.
Now that the situation is more stabilized, Diaz said the Type 2 Control Team will hand the fire back to a local Type 3 team on Friday, and the 350 personnel who have been involved with the fire will be whittled down to 50 to 60 by the weekend.
There’s always a chance that the fire could surge again, especially with high temperatures rising into the upper 80s next week.
Opperman showed Daines the output of a predictive computer model that showed areas just north and south of the fire have a chance of burning. But the likelihood of the fire expanding much more is about 3,000 to 1, Opperman said.
“No matter which way this fire goes, we have a plan for when to call in resources or step up monitoring,” Opperman said.
The Beeskove Fire is also doing what wildfires are supposed to do: clear out some of the debris in the forest. That’s why the Lolo National Forest has recently been conducting prescribed burns in the Rattlesnake area.
Now that the Beeskove Fire has helped clear another 429 acres, it can provide a natural firebreak and gives the Lolo National Forest more management options should another wildfire start in the area, said USFS administrator Jen Hensiek.
After the meeting, Daines pitched a bill he is going to introduce with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would prioritize large-scale forest management projects in California and Montana, such as the removal of dead and dying trees, expedited logging and other treatment projects around roads, trails and transmission lines, and require the USFS to speed up restoration and reforestation efforts on burned land.
The two senators said the bill is necessary to protect communities and deal with emergency conditions on the forest brought on by climate change.
A number of wildfire experts, including former USFS Fire Lab researcher Jack Cohen, say that fireproofing homes and creating defensible space is a more effective way to protect communities from wildfires.
Daines said his bill would deal only with managing national forest and wouldn’t include education or programs encouraging homeowners to protect their houses.
This story was originally published by the Missoula Current here.