With this fall’s early season winter storms, it may be hard to believe that only three months ago a wildfire burned through Helena’s North Hills and triggered the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
As firefighters mopped up the final embers, natural resource officials began assessing the fire and making plans for next steps. The Bureau of Land Management closed public lands in the area and as recently as last week, Hotshots with the U.S. Forest Service seeded and mulched areas that burned the hottest. The work is part of a rehabilitation plan for the North Hills that officials hope to complete in time to reopen the area by this winter or spring.
“We had the manpower to get it done through our agreement with the Forest Service,” said Brandy Janzen, natural resource specialist with BLM. “They’ll be back in the spring to for training, so it’s good for both of us and all-in-all a good opportunity.”
Janzen drove through the burn last week, pointing out where the bulk of reclamation work has taken place. BLM specialists in fire, wildlife and weeds have all visited the area to offer input on a reclamation plan.
“It was a time crunch to bring in all of the specialists, but I think working as a team is very important,” she said. “We’ll also be monitoring this 100% over the next three years and based upon the success, pare down our work in the area as the area naturally recovers.”
Fire severity mapping put about 210 acres in the severe category out of the 3,000 acres burned.
“Just like any other fire, there were some areas that were really hot, there were some areas of moderate and there are some areas of light,” Janzen said.
The main access road snakes through a tight ravine with a 6-inch-deep rut down the middle – the result of heavy runoff following the fire and multiple storms that hit the area. With little ground cover to begin with in the dry ponderosa pine forest, runoff is a major concern.
Hotshot crews seeded the severe areas by hand and then placed straw as a cover. Hand seeding made the most sense from a cost and effectiveness standpoint, Janzen said. She was also pleased to see some green grass already starting to poke though in places.
“I want to make sure this corridor is revegetated with native vegetation that can stabilize and intercept rain and flow through this area to help reduce any sort of continued erosion from the sides,” she said. “The water is going to come down the road until we address this issue.”
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While the sparseness of vegetation creates challenges, the area of the North Hills fire does not support a running stream. That does make some of the reclamation less complicated and less costly when sedimentation into water does not need to be mitigated.
One of the major concerns for Janzen is the potential spread of noxious weeds. The area already had some weeds that BLM sprayed annually, and the fire scar as well as the numerous drops of fire retardant, which acts as a fertilizer, could fuel the proliferation of nonnative plants.
“I’m concerned with just the addition of nutrients and how non-natives often can outcompete natives … that we’ll see a spread because we already have a seed source out there,” Janzen said. “We tried to get on top of it first thing this fall and we’ll continue to try to hit it so it doesn’t take off.”
Both Janzen and BLM public affairs specialist David Abrams said the area may reopen to the public as soon as this winter but definitely by the spring. The area is popular for target shooting, which is one reason it remains closed to the public while workers may be on site.
Target shooting has come with its share of issues for BLM as the area is often heavily littered due to shooting debris and occasionally illegal dumping, and the burnt ground has exposed some debris that needs removal.
In September, BLM cited the person suspected of igniting the North Hills fire while illegally target shooting Tannerite, which explodes on impact. That person was cited for one count of causing a fire other than a campfire and one count of burning timber, trees, slash and brush outside of a campfire. Each ticket carries a maximum $500 fine plus a $30 processing fee for a total cost of $1,060.
The suspect, who immediately reported the fire to authorities, had not addressed the citations at the time of this story. He or she has 45 days following the citation to either pay or will receive a summons to appear in federal court.
“At this point, we do not have plans to release the name of the suspect, in order to protect the individual's privacy,” Abrams said in an email.
The individual was not cited by the state of Montana, however, the citations do not include costs of fighting the fire or rehabilitation. Any possible civil action will be handled administratively by the federal or state agencies involved.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has estimated the suppression costs "somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.2 million," Helena Unit Manager John Huston said in September.