Lolo Creek Complex: Rewind the clock, what would you have done?

Google Earth image showing a pre-fire portion of the landscape now burning as part of the Lolo Creek Complex, currently the nation's number 1 priority fire.  For orientation purposes, the picture icon on the middle-bottom of the image is "Fort Fizzle" (a temporary military post erected in July 1877 by the U.S. Government to intercept the Nez Perce Indians [including women and children] in their flight from Idaho across the Lolo Pass into the Bitterroot Valley....and eventually to the Big Hole, Yellowstone and then all the way up to Canada).    The road at the bottom of the image is US Hwy 12 and you'll notice a fair number of homes and neighborhoods scattered along the highway.  The two other pictures in this post (below) were taken near Hwy 12 and are looking to the north on the slopes above Fort Fizzle.   According to a property ownership search on the official State of Montana site, nearly all of the land in this image north and above the highway is owned by Plum Creek Timber Company, although 3/4 of a section is owned by "YT Timber" out of Townsend, MT (likely connected to RY Timber in Townsend) and nearly 1/2 a section is owned by "BFP Partnership" from Missoula (which appears to be a development company).   If we could turn back the clock to pre-Lolo Creek Complex what specific land management activities would you recommend in this landscape in terms of restoring the forest, addressing "fuels" or protecting the homes and neighborhoods from the inevitability of wildfire?

Google Earth image showing a pre-fire portion of the landscape now burning as part of the Lolo Creek Complex, currently the nation’s number 1 priority fire. For orientation purposes, the picture icon on the middle-bottom of the image is “Fort Fizzle” (a temporary military post erected in July 1877 by the U.S. Government to intercept the Nez Perce Indians [including women and children] in their flight from Idaho across the Lolo Pass into the Bitterroot Valley….and eventually to the Big Hole, Yellowstone and then all the way up to Canada). The road at the bottom of the image is US Hwy 12 and you’ll notice a fair number of homes and neighborhoods scattered along the highway. The two other pictures in this post (below) were taken near Hwy 12 and are looking to the north on the slopes above Fort Fizzle. According to a property ownership search on the official State of Montana site, nearly all of the land in this image north and above the highway is owned by Plum Creek Timber Company, although 3/4 of a section is owned by “YT Timber” out of Townsend, MT (likely connected to RY Timber in Townsend) and nearly 1/2 a section is owned by “BFP Partnership” from Missoula (which appears to be a development company). If we could turn back the clock to pre-Lolo Creek Complex what specific land management activities would you recommend in this landscape in terms of restoring the forest, addressing “fuels” or protecting the homes and neighborhoods from the inevitability of wildfire?

It’s a smokey, rainy morning here in Missoula. After over three weeks without a computer (well, if you don’t count borrowing the wife’s computer at 5 minute intervals) due to a fairly significant hard-drive crash I’m back in the game, which I’m sure will be of great joy to some people.

Before the hard-drive crash I couldn’t even have dreamed of running something like ‘google earth’ on my computer. But my tech guy has this computer running better than new, so I spent some time on ‘google earth’ this morning. Really, it was Derek W who put the idea in my head, as a comment from him elsewhere on the blog mentioned that the area burned by the West Mullan fire near Superior, MT was now ‘refreshed’ on ‘google earth.’

So at the top of this post is an image of the landscape that’s now burning as part of the Lolo Creek Complex wildfire. I put quite a bit of information in the caption above, including the fact that Plum Creek Timber Company owns almost all the land in the image, so I won’t repeat it here, except to again ask an honest question:

If we could turn back the clock to pre-Lolo Creek Complex what specific land management activities would you recommend in this landscape in terms of restoring the forest, addressing any “fuels” concerns and/or protecting the homes and neighborhoods from the inevitability of wildfire?

Like I said, this is an honest question, especially in the context of all the debates and discussions we’ve had on this blog about the need to “do something” regarding forest restoration or dealing with “fuels” or protecting homes and communities from wildfire.

To date, according to the official Inciwb report on the fire, 9504 acres have burned. Of that 83% is private land, the vast majority of which is owned by Plum Creek Timber Company. There are currently 652 firefighting personnel on the fire and, according to the Missoulian, some of the firefighting crews are being flown in from as far away as Virgina and Michigan. Additional resources include 9 helicopters, 31 engines, 14 dozers and 9 water tenders.

Photo and text from Inciweb.

Photo and text from Inciweb.

Missoulian Fort Fizzle

16 Comments

  1. Can’t see enough detail in the Google Earth image to offer an overall opinion, but a modest fuel break between the homes and the grassy slopes shown in the other images would go far toward protecting the homes and neighborhoods from the inevitability of wildfire. And it would help if those homes were Fire Wise.

    • Thanks for your suggestions Steve. RE: “a modest fuel break between the homes and the grassy slopes shown.”

      One reason I thought those two pictures at the bottom were interesting is that, except for what is likely a carpet of noxious weeds mixed within the grasses, that slopes seems like the quintessential “open-park-like stand of ponderosa pines on a south-facing slope” that we often hear about come wildfire season and with any debate about fire policy.

      Also, in this particular case that hillside is privately owned, in this case by Plum Creek Timber Co. As such, should the “modest fuel break” be built, paid for, and maintained by Plum Creek? Or is there a cost-sharing option with the federal government (ie US taxpayers)? And if we are going to construct, build and maintain a modest fuel break in this situation, wouldn’t we also need to do that in all similar situations around the entire country? If so, then just how many tens of thousands of miles of fuel breaks and just how much money are we talking?

      One of the reasons I’m posting this info and asking these questions is that there are certainly no easy answers, especially when you look at the entire WUI in this country. Thanks.

  2. From today’s Missoulian:

    “The amount of resources going to protect area homes became increasingly clear as the day pressed on. Firefighters had been relegated to raking pine needles from yards while others cleared brush and limbed up trees surrounding homes.

    The Montana State Forester Bob Harrington said it was part of the bargain when fighting a fire in the wildland-urban interface.

    “When you have an interface fire, the priority of the incident management team – of everyone really – is to protect the highest value at-risk resources, and in a lot of cases – in this case – it’s people’s homes,” Harrington said….

    [A]s teams of firefighters spent their day watching flames cross the hillsides above several homes. They stood ready to act if debris tumbled onto a porch or lit a backyard tree.

    “The fire will burn the limbs off those logs and cause them to roll down the hill,” said Josh Abee, a firefighter from North Carolina. “It’s burning across the hill right now, but if that comes our way to the bottom, it’ll light up real fast.”

    So, here’s another honest question. If it’s true that part of the bargain when fighting fire in the WUI “is to protect the highest value at-risk resources, and in a lot of cases – in this case – it’s people’s homes” then doesn’t it stand to reason that many of these fires that include a part of the WUI actually get much bigger in size, and burn more forest land, because much of the firefighter energy, resources and time is spent doing stuff like raking pine needles from yards?

    For example, if we weren’t flying in firefighters from places like Michigan, Virgina and North Carolina to rake pine needles from people’s yards in Montana would the over-all cost of fighting wildfires (both specifically to the US Forest Service and also to US taxpayers in general) be significantly reduced? And wouldn’t the firefighters instead be able to use their resources, equipment and expertise to instead put out the actual fire? Seems like with firefighting costs, and fire acres burned, increasing over the past few decades these are important considerations and topics of discussion.

    • Matt: Here is a big problem that everyone seems to be skipping over: “When you have an interface fire, the priority of the incident management team – of everyone really – is to protect the highest value at-risk resources, and in a lot of cases – in this case – it’s people’s homes,” Harrington said….”

      WHO is doing these evaluations and determines that the “highest at-risk resources” are people’s homes? Shouldn’t it be people’s lives first, and some form of evaluation process to determine if homes really are the “highest values” being protected? Are well insured McMansions more valuable than trailer houses? To who? Or are air pollution or dead trees or killed wildlife worth more than unprotected homes? Says who?

      And you are dead on target with your observations regarding pine needle rakers and their cost to taxpayers. These are some of the exact points — and needed methodologies — that were being raised in my earlier post on wildfire economics: https://ncfp.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/wildfire-economics-should-the-public-be-involved-in-determining-damages/

  3. Matthew

    You and I are pretty much on the same page. Here is my take on the three major questions that I think that you have raised.

    1) “what specific land management activities would you recommend in this landscape in terms of restoring the forest, addressing any “fuels” concerns and/or protecting the homes and neighborhoods from the inevitability of wildfire?”
    –> There just isn’t enough information available to answer that question at this time and making such a recommendation would take a significant effort in terms of analyzing the pre-fire conditions and the post fire analysis of cause and effect. As discussed elsewhere, the post fire analysis of what happened and why should give us the most bang for the buck in making a tentative recommendation.

    2) “should the “modest fuel break” be built, paid for, and maintained by Plum Creek?”
    –> First, we would have to analyze the specifics regarding the location in order to estimate the probabilities as to whether or not a “modest fuel break” would have been effective.
    –> Consider also, that if the fuel break is justified, its purpose is to reduce the probability of spread across the break in either direction so, rather than one party absorbing all of the costs, there would be a definite opportunity for cost sharing where there were shared lines. But that would require agreement as to the need for and benefit from such a break. Then on top of all of that negotiation on subjective issues there would be the need for both parties to agree on an effective action plan. Sometimes it’s easy to come to agreement and sometimes it’s a very subjective issue.
    –> IMHO, landowners have the ultimate responsibility for protecting their own property whether they are timber companies, homeowners or the USFS or the NPS (yep, we now have a fire on Yosemite). But, there is a long history throughout the whole country of people not worrying about whose property it is on because, in an instant it could be on your property if you don’t lend a hand to put it out on your neighbor’s property. I don’t know if this is still true or if this was a US South peculiarity. No matter what, the financial responsibilities often take up to ten years to sort out, in and out of court, as noted in another thread in this blog. The after fire negotiations as to “if you’d have done this then that wouldn’t have happened” finger pointing is endless and oftentimes pretty subjective. I do not know what the current USFS policies dictate in terms of cooperation from private landowners in handling such a large fire where the USFS has taken over. I would certainly expect that a significant number of trained PC employees and resources were invested in the firefighting efforts. If not, I would certainly like to know why not.

    3) ” then doesn’t it stand to reason that many of these fires that include a part of the WUI actually get much bigger in size, and burn more forest land, because much of the firefighter energy, resources and time is spent doing stuff like raking pine needles from yards?”
    –> Couldn’t agree more. However, homeowners vote and trees don’t.

  4. Matthew. I agree with the idea that “some specifics” would be helpful.

    Here’s my idea…

    Get Dr. Finney and those allied with spots and splats like this.

    Fund them, and social scientists, to go in to a variety of communities (say five, in various states with different cultures) (with a team of fire suppression and other practitioners) and work with local communities to develop what strategic treatments would look like.

    Maybe give this process two years. Then have the two teams, one of researchers, one of practitioners, each do a lessons learned.

    Around the topics..
    1) could we reach agreement, why or why not?
    2) what were the problems we identified and lack of information?
    3) what does it look like on the landscape?
    4) what would it cost to do it and keep the fuelbreaks up through time?
    5) Are there any changes in law policy or regulations needed to make it happen?
    6) How are homeowners and business and infrastructure owners doing at creating defensible space and protecting their homes, fire and what requirements do we think we should put on them? (e.g, if firefighters end up doing something to your house, you pay their salaries

    Compare the two lessons learned, and open for public comments about their interpretations. Then we would really know something.

    I suggest two teams because, in my experience, the importance of interpersonal dynamics in team reports cannot be overestimated.

    There seems to be much funding at NSF and elsewhere that is currently going to model bug and fire outbreaks under climate change that could, in my opinion, could more profitably be spend helping us figure out what to do. I could point to about $900 K which could easily be switched over (IMHO).

    • Why didn’t the private homeowners do this work before hand?

      If structures burn, the private individuals should file a claim against their home-owners insurance.

      This is a good example of why the Feds are in debt.

      People should take personal responsibility and stop asking for government handouts.

  5. We live in the middle of the fire zone, stayed and rode it out, and watched everything that was going on. The armchair quarterbacks need to get a dose of reality and not be second guessing the people who do real work and add real value to our communities and to our country.

    • Hello anonymous posting person in Lolo. Do you have any thoughts to add about this? In other words, what lessons can be learn with this fire? Thanks.

      If we could turn back the clock to pre-Lolo Creek Complex what specific land management activities would you recommend in this landscape in terms of restoring the forest, addressing any “fuels” concerns and/or protecting the homes and neighborhoods from the inevitability of wildfire?

      • Matthew

        Take if from those of us who have done it – Your question is impossible to answer honestly by anyone who didn’t personally know the land before the fire and hasn’t seen the full details of all of the post fire analysis. Anything else is a stab in the dark.

        BTW, didn’t you once say that you had some fire fighting experience? If so, I really don’t understand your line of questioning. The photos above are only representative of some undetermined portion of the line and conditions.

    • Many of our neighbors have worked very hard to create and maintain a “defensible space” between homes and forest. It is our responsibility when living next to forested property. In addition. our home has been built with fire resistant materials.

      It was very scary when the fire was less than a mile from our house; but with reassurance from the fire crews that we’d done every thing possible to protect our property we sat tight and hoped the nightmare would soon end. I have nothing but praise for the way this fire was fought and managed. As to the future, we hope others take “defensible space” to heart so no has to suffer a great loss.

  6. I certainly have a dog in this fight. My parents moved up Hwy. 12 in 1976 when I was 6 yrs. old. I grew up about 1/2 mile east of the Graves Creek Road turnoff. Fortunately, my childhood home was about two miles west of the ignition point at Bear Creek. Unfortunately, many of my long time neighbors were not & I’d like to express my deep sadness for them. That said-

    To me, everyone commenting on this thread has the solution to this issue backwards. The WUI is not, per se, an agency (federal/state) problem. It is a city & county planning problem. It is a zoning problem. Both the city and county have great power to pass laws affecting where and how people use their property. Theoretically, a county can pass zoning laws that force landowners to create defensible space on their property in the interests of “health, safety, and welfare,” and under penalty of law for noncompliance. See where I’m going here? Generally, however, this is extremely difficult to do in “property rights” states. But after events like this – and time is of the essence as planning is often ruled by perception – the space is created to have reasonable discussions with county homeowners about changes in the planning code. Some people will howl that it is a “takings.” And howl they will all the way to court; but the law is fairly settled on this matter. The ordinance would be constitutional as long as it didn’t deprive the homeowner of the useful value of their land. (I’m sure someone will get all legally with me here, but this is a generalization & I’m not going to go into all the details here which would bore most readers to tears). Thus, the discussion here (and out in the real world) needs to be aimed at the County Commissioners. Put simply, historical policies have led most counties to love sprawl because it increases their tax base. However, when those policies begin seriously impacting the health, safety, welfare, and pocket books of the larger community – as well as putting the agencies in the untenable position of having to choose how to relegate their already scarce resources – then its time to step back and make some tough new choices about zoning in the WUI.

    • I love showers. I got in the shower immediately after writing this post; and BLAM, it hit me….the solution (or at least a step in the right direction) to MK’s inquiry.

      Building on the last post: Could not the Federal resource management agencies promulgate rules that would commit them to defending only those communities/counties that have enacted defensible space zoning ordinances? I’m pretty sure the policy the agencies currently employ is on a home by home basis which puts the firefighters in an untenable and dangerous situation. This is a great example of the carrot and stick approach to Federal power. Furthermore, it would have knock on effects to the massive problem of sprawl into & fragmentation of our valuable wildlands. Does anyone here know: Are there policies like this in place anywhere in the nation? I’d love to hear input.
      Thanks

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