From Bill Walker…
Here is Karina’s Pettey’s (hopefully) last update on the Whale Butte Fire. It is, as always, excellent work and very informative…
Cool misty weather has set in and the fire is looking great. Still maybe a few embers down in the NW corner toward Whale Creek, but the riparian zone is wet and they aren’t likely to do much. there was no smoke yesterday from that area. It will be interesting to finally get into the fire zone later this fall and see how the fire burned.
Most heavy equipment is gone and, in talking with USFS and fire personnel yesterday, they are planning to shrink the fire closure zone to an envelope around Whale Butte and Center Mountain banded by 1671 on the north and 1672 on the south. Moose Creek and Whale Creek roads may reopen to public traffic later this week or this weekend. We personally expect that Whale Butte and Coal Ridge fires will return to USFS management when Goke’s Type 1 Team assignment expires. Roads that were closed will be closed again. My understanding is that includes 1671 and 1672, 10888, the road that was dozed behind “Moose Crossing” land owners, and Spruce Creek Road. Some will be gated and bermed, others closed with debris. Dozer lines around the fire will be rehabilitated as well. Several neighbors pointed out to USFS staff that putting in multiple berms on closed roads was counter productive as those who choose to ignore road closures will cut a new path. We’d prefer to leave it at a gate and 1 berm, to reduce creation of “alternate routes”. For now 1671 and 1672 will not be maintained after fire season as they are in the grizzly closure zone.
In our conversations yesterday, we learned that it is ok for us to take firewood from the brush stacks, just try not to mess them up too much. There is a science to how those piles have been stacked and fluffed to provide the most efficient burn. Depending on weather, piles will be burned later this fall or next year. The log decks at the landing on Moose Creek and the pit at Whale Creek are NOT open for wood cutting. Those piles will be sold through a USFS bid process.
Moose Creek drainage hasn’t burned significantly since 1926. In the past 5 years alone we’ve had 4 named fires started from lightning strikes. Our fuel mix of predominantly alpine fir/spruce/lodgepole forest has a 50-100 year fire life. Fuel reduction can make a significant difference between a positive impact fire and a destructive one. Fuel reduction also provides zones where fire personnel may be able to safely access a fire. A lot was accomplished in August with the shaded fuel break and that gives us a line of defense to be used in future fire seasons. If you would like to see additional areas in the Moose Creek / Whale Creek drainage considered for the next round of USFS fuel reduction it is important to speak up and I’d encourage you to do so now, no matter what your point of view. USFS can look at the big picture from satellite, but on the ground intelligence from those of us who live here does impact their decision making process.
Andy Huntzberger reminded us at the last fire meeting that there are two areas west of private property on Moose Creek Road on the list for prescribed burn this fall. A lot of factors go into that decision process and he wants us to be aware they may happen this year if conditions are right. There are also other areas on the list in areas to our south.
Our recent conversation with USFS and the Type 1 team helped us understand better the decision making process behind the scenes when a fire starts. Nationally fire season starts in the south and southwest, moves west to California and than up the coast to the Pacific Northwest and hooks back east to Montana. An interesting side note, Montana fire season parallels hurricane season in the SE portion of the country. Hence, we tend to be burning and the other end of the country is drowning. Teams are located in all regions of the country and since 9/11, include teams based in densely populated regions of the east coast. Type 1 teams share common organizational structure, lingo and processes enabling teams to rotate on events that run longer than two weeks. Team assignment is based on several factors and it may be a case of which team is available to respond as our regional teams may be out on assignment to other areas. Allocating Type 1 resources around the country is certainly a balancing act.
Within the Flathead National Forest, fires that start in July are usually going to be attacked quickly and suppressed as we are too far away from a season ending weather event to risk them exploding and endangering the public and values at risk. For fires that blow up quickly or grow to more than 5-10 acres, total suppression is often difficult and the strategy changes. Fires that start in August and September involve weighing costs / benefits of various approaches. For example, a crew digging in hand lines to directly combat a fire that is surround by rock cliffs is a high cost / high risk operation with little long term benefit to the forest or general public. At times (as in the case of Whale Buttes / Coal Ridge), an indirect approach involving initial aerial attack, perimeter fuel reduction and closed road maintenance with targeted direct attacks, like spike camps, provides a better balance of long term benefit / resources spent.
The one constant we all recognize, when you choose to live on the North Fork, you choose to live with the risk of fire.
This is my last fire update… unless something crazy happens. Here’s to a wet fall and snowy winter!