Friday, August 12, 2016

Prescribed fire aims to reduce fire risk, improve elk habitat

Weather conditions permitting, fire managers plan to begin prescribed fire operations next week in the Barnard Junction and Moose Kelly project areas of the North Fork Ranger District. 

The planned area has remained relatively untouched by fire for almost a century. Applying fire in a controlled manner will reduce the risk of future catastrophic wildfires and provide better forage for declining elk herds and other wildlife species.

The prescribed burn has been scheduled to take advantage of the narrow window of opportunity for prescribed fire treatment available, as the area receives 30 to 60 inches of rain annually, and is compared to an inland rainforest.

The fire will be allowed to move and spread within the units until precipitation from a season-ending weather event occurs. Units targeted for treatment range from 150 acres to 2,050 acres.

Not every acre will burn, but the entire area will benefit from the increased vegetative diversity created by the managed fire. 

After fire managers perform a test burn, a helicopter, utilizing aerial ignition, will drop hundreds of chemical-filled plastic spheres that look like ping-pong balls onto ridges with stands of dead and dying timber in the target area. A chemical reaction causes the spheres to ignite on the ground and smolder until they light vegetation.

By varying the proportions of the chemical mix and the number of spheres dropped, fire managers can control the speed of ignition and the intensity of the prescribed fire. The fire will then be allowed to back downslope into wet drainages, reducing fire intensity. 

The targeted prescribed fire area burned during the historic 1910 and 1919 fires. Decades of fire suppression has left the area heavily forested with lodgepole pine and many of the trees in the area are dying from infestations of mountain pine beetle. Reducing the amount of available fuels aids in the reduction of potentially large, high intensity wildfires.

Thick tree canopies have prevented growth of forage required by big-game animals. The result has been an adverse effect of elk habitat in the area and elk populations dropping drastically over the past quarter century. Many plants respond favorably to fire and new growth will provide forage for wildlife.

Residents of Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley are likely to see smoke from the burn. Prescribed fire produces smoke, but the smoke is typically short-lived and managed to minimize impacts to communities.

Prescribed fire and other fuels treatments help to reduce the severity of wildfires and minimize adverse smoke impacts on public health and safety.

Over the next several weeks, the forest is planning several other prescribed fire projects in the North Fork and Lochsa/Powell Ranger Districts to reduce fuels and restore characteristics of a fire-adapted ecosystem. Prescribed fire treatments have not been implemented in these wetter areas since 2011.

Planned treatment areas are located within remote, roadless areas or areas with very limited road access. Staggering the prescribed fire treatments through the late fall reduces smoke impacts to local communities.

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