Surviving Forest Fires
topic at Swan Valley
Ad Hoc Meeting


May 31, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana


Some forests can survive wildfire if proper management techniques have been implemented beforehand.

That's the lesson that Montana Department of Natural Resources officials learned after a large crown fire last spring swept through an area of New Mexico where Montana foresters had helped the Bureau of Indian Affairs establish forest demonstration plots.

Chris Tootell of the Missoula office of the Montana Department of Natural Resources shared his slides and stories with about 35 Swan Valley residents at a recent Ad Hoc meeting in Condon. Speakers described management techniques that might help homeowners create survivable space on their forested properties.

"When wildfire meets an area that has been managedthat is, well-stewardedforests can survive," Tootell explained. "These forests (in New Mexico) withstood a tremendous fire," he said, referring to four ponderosa pine demonstration plots on the Santa Clara Forest. The Cerro Grande Fire, a man-caused event that burned 14,000 acres on May 10th, 2000, burned through the area of the demonstration plots. The forests outside the plots were completely destroyed by the fire, but the mature trees within the demonstration areas survived.

"If you open the forest properly, you'll have healthy trees, and the forest will be more fire resistant," Tootell explained.

The ponderosa pine forests in New Mexico were thinned to 25 feet between mature trees, and land managers left a good representation of the best trees in all age classes, he explained.

"Trees that were in the best shape going into the fire were still in the best shape after the fire," Tootell said.

Tootell and others at the meeting recognized that many homeowners also want to provide habitat for wildlife.

"When you go out into your forest, read your forest," he advised. "Let nature tell you what to do." For example, landowners often decide to leave thick forest cover along wildlife travel corridors and in bird nesting areas.

Matt Arno, reforestation technician from Ninemile who also spoke at the meeting, has helped homeowners create survivable space and he agreed with Tootell that management objectives may vary widely from one property to the next.

Every decision about forest management is personal when people are working on their own land, he said. "Get started somewhere. Start on little trees. Do what's comfortable for you," he advised.

Protecting forests and homes from catastrophic wildfire has been a topic of interest throughout Montana following the record-breaking fire season last summer. During the Ad Hoc meeting, several other topics related to fire protection were also discussed, including a community-wide program now being implemented by the Swan Ecosystem Center (SEC), a local non-profit group whose office is located at the Condon Work Center.

SEC has developed a traveling exhibit depicting methods of protecting homes located in forested areas. This exhibit and related fire-preparedness brochures are available for use by local clubs and organizations.

To borrow the exhibit materials and learn more about protecting your home or forest property from wildfire, contact the Swan Ecosystem Center, 754-3137.

If you would like to talk to a state forester about fire hazard reduction on your forested property, call the Swan River State Forest at Goat Creek, 754-2301. The Swan River State Forest at Goat Creek is responsible for fire protection in the valley bottom area of the Swan Valley. The Flathead National Forest, Swan Lake Ranger District, is responsible for fire protection at higher elevations. The Swan Valley Volunteer Fire Department also responds to structure fires in residential areas of the valley.

To report a fire in the Condon area, call 9-1-1 or the Swan River State Forest, 754-2301.