The Tenmile Watershed and South Hills of Helena are critical areas to the health and safety of thousands of people who live in and around them. The recent decision by the Forest Service to reduce fuel and improve roads in the Tenmile-South Hills Project area is largely about life safety for citizens and first responders alike. The Tri-County FireSafe Working Group fully supports this project. Unfortunately the Forest Service is the subject of civil litigation by numerous groups seeking to halt this important project. We believe the project should be completed.
The pine trees in the project area were ravaged by the mountain pine beetle epidemic in 2005/2006 killing 90% of the lodgepole and ponderosa pine trees over 5 inches in diameter. Lodgepole pine makes up 50% of the project area; much of it is still standing but dead. The fire hazard of these areas is rated as extreme due to those fuels and the type of fires that burn in this area. When a fire burns in live lodgepole, it kills the majority of the trees because it burns from crown to crown. The dead standing trees with small trees under them and some live large trees remaining present a different danger. A crown fire can carry through these stands, and the downed trees on the forest floor then burn in a second wave of fire. A fire in these fuels will be intense and dangerous and very difficult to control. Ponderosa pine grows in lower elevations and occupies 10% of the area. Many of these trees are already down, creating an extremely heavy fuel load. A fire here will likely stay on the ground but will burn very hot and be difficult to control.
The decision by the Forest Service to open the forest canopy by cutting trees, and reduce fuels on the ground with fire, chipping and masticating will change fire behavior and allow firefighters to more safely fight a fire, and protect the Tenmile watershed. This watershed provides about 50% of the City water to Helena. If a large fire burns in the watershed, the water system will likely be damaged or destroyed; silt will flow into the streams and reservoirs. This source of water will not be available to the citizens of Helena. The result, whether short or long term, will be an enormous cost to the City taxpayers as the water must be gotten elsewhere. Without this management the area continues to become more hazardous as trees fall and the understory matures.
The South Hills are a drier vegetation type, dominated by ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. This area has a lot of private land mixed with public land. There are many houses in the area and miles of road that people need to be able to use to escape a wildfire. The Forest Service decision in this area includes a lot of fuel reduction adjacent to private land boundaries in addition to opening the forest canopy and reducing fuels in units scattered through the area. The decision to thin trees and reduce fuels on the ground with fire, chipping and masticating and focusing on private land boundary fuel removal, will change fire behavior and allow firefighters to more safely fight a fire.
Safe ingress and egress are critical in times of emergency. The Forest Service is improving 47 miles of existing roads in the project area. These are roads that are used by people evacuating and fire equipment entering active fire areas. The project will also reduce fuels along 26 miles of those roads, making it possible for citizens and firefighters to safely pass. We support these activities. This is just good public land management.
Tri-County Firesafe Working Group (Tri-County) is a nonprofit dedicated to wildland fire mitigation planning, population protection, and meaningful projects to sustain forest health and natural aesthetics in wildland-urban interface settings. The Tri-County mitigation program focuses work in the interface, which includes the Tenmile-South Hills Project. We support the decision!
Rocky Infanger is the board president for Tri-County Firesafe Working Group.