Lolo Creek Complex: Majority of acres burned owned by Plum Creek Timber Co

To date, the vast majority of the land burned in the Lolo Creek Complex fire has been heavily logged, roaded and weeded sections owned and managed by Plum Creek Timber Company

To date, the vast majority of the land burned in the Lolo Creek Complex fire has been heavily logged, roaded and weeded sections owned and managed by Plum Creek Timber Company

On Wednesday, the Lolo Creek Complex fire was named the nation’s Number 1 firefighting priority. Over the past few days the fire has made a number of good runs due to winds approaching 50 miles per hour and humidities in the teens. This has all been reported in the media.

What hasn’t been reported in the media at all is the fact that the majority of the acres burned to date as part of the Lolo Creek Complex fire have burned on lands owned and managed by Plum Creek Timber Company. Much of that Plum Creek Timber Company land has been heavily logged, roaded and infested with noxious weeds.

According to the official Inciweb report on the Lolo Creek Complex fire, to date the fire has burned 1,455 acres of the Lolo National Forest and 7,143 acres of private land. For what it’s worth, much of the Lolo National Forest land burned in this fire to date could also be characterized as heavily logged, roaded and infested with noxious weeds.

What Inciweb doesn’t tell us, or show, is that the vast majority of that private land burned to date in the fire is owned and managed by Plum Creek Timber Company.

To verify this fact I used the most current fire perimeter maps on Inciweb and then consulted with a tool called the Montana Cadastral, that I’ll sometimes use during hunting season to confirm land ownership. The Montana Cadastral is a Montana Base Map Service Center, which is a part of the Montana State Library. It provides the most up-to-date information concerning land ownership throughout Montana.

As anyone can clearly see using these tools, section after section of land owned and managed (mis-managed?) by Plum Creek Timber Company has burned as part of the Lolo Creek Complex fire. Currently, over 500 firefighters (and numerous helicopters, bull-dozers, tanker trucks, etc) are battling the fire. What the total cost of this fire to US Taxpayers will be is anyone’s guess. The total cost of all this fire suppression activity that will be paid for by Plum Creek Timber Company is likely a little easier to figure out.

Why the Montana media hasn’t utter one single word about the fact that the majority of land burning in this fire is owned and managed by Plum Creek Timber Company is a real mystery.

P.S. It’s also worth pointing out that another large chunk of the private land burned to date in the Lolo Creek Complex Fire is owned by Illinois-based Potomac Corporation. It’s tough to find info about them on-line, but they appear to be in the cardboard manufacturing business. Calls to their listed 847-259-0546 number have gone unanswered all day.

27 Comments

    • Yes, I understand that Sharon….and am also working to change that. You’d think with 3 or 4 dozen newspaper, TV and radio articles on this fire today someone could mention one thing, one time about who actually owns the land.

  1. Ok…what does them owning the land change about anything. It being heavily logged would actually help slow the fire. The roads provide better access for firefighting crews. And the noxious weeds grow in many places around there. I really don’t see anything wrong. The companies that own this land are losing money because the land can no longer be logged and a profit can’t be turned. Unless there are structures lost then insurance claims can’t be filed.

  2. Matthew, you are entitled to your opinion about Plum Creek’s management practices, or those of any other owner, but you’re cherry picking. Does the media in Montana routinely focus on who owns the land, or does it mostly report on evacuations, homes burned, injuries and death, and percent containment? Does it report on the number of private acres burned by fires that started on public lands? Would you like to talk about the Waldo Canyon Fire, which began on Pike National Forest in Colorado last year and burned 347 homes on private land? And about the floods that recently swept off of the Pike NF and ripped through private lands? I’m sure lots of folks on this blog can tell us about Montana fires that started on overcrowded, unmanaged, unhealthy public lands and then burned private lands.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Steve. Yes, when the media writes a few dozen stories about a specific wildfire I’ve noticed that they will, from time to time, inform the public who owns the land. I’m not saying it needs to be the focus of any entire article at this point, perhaps there will be time for that later. I’m just pointing out that, to date, there has been zero mention of what the land ownership is that is burning.

      Fact is, just from living here in Missoula and hearing lots of “street talk” about this fire over the past few days most people seem to assume it’s only Forest Service land burning in the fire. Thanks.

      P.S. Fact is, I’m happy to talk about the Waldo Canyon Fire and why those homes burned. I’ve done so before on this blog, here. And as a group we’ve discussed the Waldo Canyon Fire numerous times. Thanks again, Steve.

  3. Matthew

    In spite of this being a big deal to you, you fail to state what lessons/conclusions should be drawn from these concerns that you have expressed. Please fill in the blanks for us and suggest what policy/regulations should be instituted to apply that insight in such a way as to reduce future wildfires.

    When the post incident report is released, would you kindly post it here so that we see if there is any validity to your concerns?

    • What we really need to see Gil, is the post fire BAER “burn severity maps.” And I don’t mean “soil burn severity”…I mean “vegetation burn severity.” They were very handy in me finding the clearcuts don’t burn thang. But the BAER’s take time…and aren’t published online very often. How does one get to them? Another item for Sharon’s “people’s data base.”

      Another handy item…for research purposes…would be a “post burn narrative” of the incident commanders…with info on “why they built their fire lines where they did.” What vegetative conditions did they use to pick such a spot. (besides the obvious terrain considerations). I’ve seen many a fire line tied into the regen clearcuts. A lot of “post fire perimeters” end at these regen clearcuts…and an observers gets the impression that that was no accident. One of my relatives is a type II incident commander with lots of experience in Montana, and he told me, “When I’m flying over a fire coming up with a strategy to contain it, I’m looking for old burns and old clearcuts to tie my lines into and give my guys an escape zone.” The lower elevation warm/dry shelterwood or seed cuts seem to be “problematic” for fire control. And we both know they are basically clearcuts heavy with regen…so is it a species thing? I can’t imagine lodgepole being fireproof. Very perplexing to me.

      What we need on this blog…is some retired incident commanders…who can now “speak freely.” Or how about twenty of them…and let’s pose them some questions.

  4. Thought everyone would like to know, that “Google Earth” has updated their photos for the “West Mullan” fire near Superior Montana. It’s smokey…but it’s post fire! I noticed it on inciweb…then went to google earth. Just type in Superior, MT…and you can’t miss it. And yes…you’ll see some “emerald green islands”…and you’ll see some burnt Plum Creek. You’ll also see a lot of unburnt Plum Creek(when I say unburnt….I mean burnt but still green). When you play with the “3D” view…you’ll really see how steep slope channels the flame up…and you’ll see how fire “backing down ” a hill is for the most part quite green. Fascinating stuff! This is way better than BAER. Let’s hope that we’ll soon be able to examine the mortality on the “Lolo Complex” fire that Matt posted.

    Oh…and my Type II relative…he sez “Loggers are my best friend!” (This is a true statement…and he said it rather boisterously when asked if logging helps wildfires. )

  5. Of course, the purpose of the original posting was to demonstrate that heavily cut-over and roaded forests will burn, and burn vigorously in the right conditions such as we are having these days.
    There are some participating on this blog site who frequently allude to the need for much more thinning and cutting on the national forests, thereby greatly reducing the risk of large wildfires (their opinion).
    This posting merely focuses on the obvious fact that thinned or otherwise managed forestlands are not as fireproof as they would have us believe.

    • There is QUITE a difference between “heavily cut-over” as done by private industry and “thinned” as the Forest Service would do it, Ed. However, Matt says nothing about those lands being “thinned”, in the forestry-sense of the word. I have never been a fan of private industry profit “management”, for the most part.

      • Larry

        Re: ” I have never been a fan of private industry profit “management”, for the most part.”

        Considering HCP’s, MOU’s and other arrangements to preserve biodiversity combined with BMP’s and independent audits. I’m of the opinion that Profit Management subject to these constraints is doing a better job of sound forest management, at the present time, than what appears to be happening on USFS lands because the USFS is being hamstrung by policies resulting from things like the NSO and litigation by environmentalist who think that they can micromanage for every possible individual non-keystone species in the forest ecosystem.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the USFS should manage their lands as intensively as the well managed timberland companies do. What I am saying is that increasing commercial harvests to some significant degree over a period of time would provide more heterogeneity and therefore more diversity and reduce the drain on the taxpayers pocket. Diversity of age classes combined with appropriate harvest practices would also reduce catastrophic losses as I have referred to elsewhere in this blog.

        An example of what sound forest management would correct:
        “The early-serial forest type is now the scarcest forest type in the PNW” (Page 6, June 2013 Forestry Source published by the SAF). Thanks for this would appear to go to the failed NSO plan and the disproportionate focus on old growth that environmentalists used to extend that thinking to all USFS lands. What about all of the species that depend on early-serial forest types? A disproportionate focus on old growth is homogeneity which is the exact opposite of diversity. Where is future old growth going to come from if young stands are not proportionally represented?

  6. Ed

    Re: “There are some participating on this blog site who frequently allude to the need for much more thinning and cutting on the national forests, thereby greatly reducing the risk of large wildfires (their opinion).
    This posting merely focuses on the obvious fact that thinned or otherwise managed forestlands are not as fireproof as they would have us believe.”

    –> In the first sentence you say “greatly reducing the risk of large wildfires”
    –> In the second sentence you leap to “fireproof”
    –> So which is it? There is a tremendous difference between the two.
    –> Everything about Forestry Is Probabilities. Very little works every time. I’ve said that repeatedly on this blog and will continue to say it. We don’t work in a plant where all of the factors affecting the quality of the product are controllable. We aren’t making silicon wafers or refining petroleum products. The forestry production environment is about as uncontrollable as it gets, hence the need to work on the basis of probabilities knowing that the net effect will be a plus over a “nature only” policy.

    As others have said above, we can’t draw any insights from this fire at this time. I haven’t even heard whose land it started on.

  7. Wow, such word-nitpicking. Of course I did not literally mean “fireproofed”. You can’t even totally fireproof a concrete/metal building (such as Twin Towers on 9/11) and of course, I have enough sense and field experience to know you can’t “fireproof” the forest! Why not consider the intent of the posting instead of fussing over a word?
    Little wonder that participants here rarely agree on key issues.

    • Ed

      Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about you to know your intent. And even if I did, your statement needed clarification for the others who can’t read your mind.

      Re: “This posting merely focuses on the obvious fact that thinned or otherwise managed forestlands are not as fireproof as they would have us believe.”
      –> At the minimum it appears to be a put down that misrepresents not only what was literally said but also the clear intent of what was literally said in order to minimize the importance of scientific facts.

      We are not fussing over a word, we are fussing over a basic scientific principle.

  8. For background, I am a resident of the Sleeman Gulch road area, and was evacuated in the face of this wildfire. I can tell you that the area around here, west of Lolo, is so dry it hurts your feet to walk barefoot on the grasses in my side yard – it is not watered like the front. The forests here are brittle – it didn’t matter last week how much an area was logged, which was why it burned and spread so fast, and was so difficult to get ahead of in terms of containment. The fire covered a 4-mile stretch across rodge tops in under 2 hours on Tuesday last week. Fire officials who came to tell us of the evacuation walked my house and property – 4 or so acres – and said the house should be relatively OK. Almost all of that 4 acres are open – no trees or widely spaced trees. Even up the ridge east of my house the trees are thinned to 20 and 40 -oot distance between any two trees. But if the fire had come down Sleeman, no hou-se would likely have survived unscathed.

    So how does Plum Creek ownership impact the RHs here in the single digits, or the winds that funnel down the gulches west of here like chimneys? Please make that connection – I am seriously interetsed in raising the issue if there is one to raise.

    • Hello Phil, Thanks so much for sharing your first-hand account.

      Did you see this post, also from last week:

      USFS Fire Lab and Wuerthner: Wind (and weather conditions) drive all large blazes?

      I bring up this other post because your first-hand account of the Lolo Complex fire:

      “The forests here are brittle – it didn’t matter last week how much an area was logged, which was why it burned and spread so fast, and was so difficult to get ahead of in terms of containment.”

      Seems to confirm that wind and weather conditions (ie prolonged drought, humidity in the teens or single digits, etc) are what drove the fire, and no amount of logging or roaduilding or thinning would stop its spread under extreme weather conditions. Environmentalists have been trying to make this point for nearly two decades now. Hopefully, as we learn more from each fire season, more people realize that if the weather conditions are right (or wrong) wildfire will spread regardless of how much, or how little, logging/thinning, etc was done ahead of time.

      Based on a few angry phone calls I got from anonymous people, and also a few anonymous emails, people seem really upset that I would point out that that vast majority of the acres that have burned in the Lolo Complex Fire (to date) are owned and managed by Plum Creek. Sure, it’s easy to ask “why does that matter?” But it’s also just as easy to ask, “Why doesn’t the land ownership (and management pre-fire) matter?” All I am simply saying it that there have likely now been 50 different news articles/stories about the Lolo Complex Fire and I have yet to see anyone in the media inform the public who owns most of the land. Perhaps that’s not important at all. I think it at least merits a mention a time or two. Thanks again.

      • Matthew… no one has ever argued that logging or roadbuilding or thinning alone will always stop wildfires. The argument goes that reducing fuels will change wildfire behavior, making it easier for suppression folks to get around safely. It’s hard to argue that roads don’t make things easier for suppression forces (?).

        As to “environmental groups” making that point… well, I’d have to ask you to be more specific.

        For example, look at this brief TWS statement by Dr. Greg Aplet, Tom Fry and Cecilia Clavet.

        Policies are needed to get federal money to local communities, to be spent on planning and implementing locally based, collaborative community protection strategies that target acres that provide the greatest benefit.

        If some specific environmental groups don’t think that fuels treatments are worth doing, I think they need to get their opinions on the table where they can be openly debated. Because many scientific studies, practitioner experience and and photos show that they do work to change fire behavior at certain places and times.

        We can host that discussion on this blog, if the specific environmental groups that feel that way are willing to participate.

  9. “Seems to confirm that wind and weather conditions (ie prolonged drought, humidity in the teens or single digits, etc) are what drove the fire, and no amount of logging or roaduilding or thinning would stop its spread under extreme weather conditions. Environmentalists have been trying to make this point for nearly two decades now”

    Don’t think the politicians like those explanations:

    http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/08/25/2724601/flame-act-fails-to-curb-fires.html#

  10. How about our friend George.. in the same story…

    George Wuerthner is an environmental activist, ecologist and author who has studied fire for more than 25 years. He wrote Wyden this week in part to challenge how collaborative efforts steer fuel treatment dollars away from where he says they are needed most — near communities.

    “Focusing our limited federal dollars on fuel reductions immediately by communities and even more money towards reducing the flammability of homes is the only strategy that will work effectively to reduce fire danger to communities (and) firefighters,” he said.

    Wuerthner told the Statesman that he could support “fairly severe” mechanical thinning — including logging big trees — near communities such as Hailey and Ketchum if it was a part of a broad, local program that included mandatory regulations requiring homeowners to make their houses more resistant to fire. The movement to clear brush and trees away from homes, replace wood-shake roofs and provide firefighters with “defensible space” is known as firewise.

    So fuel treatments in the WUI (sorry, Bob) are OK according to George. My question is why George is on Rocky’s rolodex, and not other conservation folks or fire folks or real fire researchers. Because he wrote a letter to Senator Wyden?

    I also have to say a “decade of aggressive thinning” is a bit of an overstatement in my view if Derek’s numbers for percentage of forest treated are correct. Of course, that would be a number for the People’s Database…that we don’t have clearly.

    • Sharon wrote: “My question is why George is on Rocky’s rolodex….”

      Well, lucky for you Sharon (and I suppose all of us), the Idaho Statesmen article you are quoting from clearly lists both Rocky’s email address and his phone number. Why don’t you pose your question directly to Rocky and report back what you find out? Seems like such an action would fall under the mantra of “be more specific,” which you’ve been writing about lately, instead of just posing generic questions on this blog that nobody can really answer. Thanks.

    • Sharon: I used to contribute to Rocky’s blog for a few years before I became active here, and we even corresponded privately by email from time to time. For the most part, I served the same function there (“balance”) as Matthew and others serve here — to provide an alternative point of view. Rocky’s published work is very similar to George’s in many ways and he doesn’t have many alternative sources to draw from as a result. His book on the Yellowstone Fire, though, was entirely his own and not mish-mash of like-minded essays, as George produced. Rocky seems like a good guy — and probably is — but definitely has an agenda that he is not hesitant to promote. Why he continues to call Wuerthner an ecologist, though, is difficult to understand — in some regards he is a fairly good journalist that is not afraid to present or address alternative viewpoints. On his blog.

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