WLA hosts prescribed fire talk
On April 11, the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) hosted a webinar discussion on the use of prescribed fire on private land.
Featuring five panelists from throughout the western region, the webinar allowed attendees to learn about specific examples of fire control programs, as well as the successes and challenges faced by each panelist.
From northern Montana, retired District Fire Management Officer of the Rexford Ranger District in Kootenai National Forest, Ron Visdeck discussed his program, in addition to considerations and strategies for private landowners to use in a prescribed fire program.
Most of Visdeck’s early experience with prescribed burning treatments was burning clear cuts and regeneration cuts, which provided invaluable insight regarding the benefits of prescribed burning.
“We had a big mountain pine beetle outbreak in the 70s and 80s, so we tried to salvage as much of the lodgepole pine as we could. We were burning 80 to 100 cuttings per year,” he noted
The burning program in his area began in the 1970s with a focus on improving big game habitat, rather than fire control and hazard reduction.
“Most of the burning was done away from the homes and the valleys. We learned a lot and saw that it did a lot of good,” continued Visdeck. “We actually started treating more stands in the valley bottom closer to homes.”
His team began underburning in the valley bottom in 1984, and the program has continued and expanded in recent years.
Because of the approximately 50-year duration of the program, the benefits of long-term control are now evident, he said.
“Some places are on their second or third burn, which is much easier because it’s a lot more open,” commented Visdeck.
“Of course, everybody has hurdles when they first get started with a program, but public perception was a big one for our program,” said Visdeck.
He noted that there was a lot of public concern with safety for wildlife that had to be addressed.
“Smoke was another big concern,” he continued. “When we burn the valley bottom near homes, there’s residual smoke.”
Concerns about air quality made cooperation with various agencies imperative.
Another concern from the public was scorched trees and mortality, Visdeck explained.
“Living in a logging community, anytime a tree is killed, that’s a tree that can’t be used in the lumber mill,” he said.
Since the program’s inception, it has also seen numerous successes, Visdeck explained, using the example of two large fires in 1994 and 2005.
“In 1994, we had one fire burn a stand that we had treated, and our treatment probably saved half a dozen homes,” he commented.
He continued, “In 2005, we had a fire come across a stand that we had treated, and it slowed the fire down and allowed us to catch it, saving the nearby town.”
However, as impressive as the large fires were, Visdeck noted that the greatest successes are smaller fires that never grew and were easy to control because of prescribed fire treatments.
According to Visdeck, one of the largest concerns for landowners and agencies alike when considering prescribed fire treatments is the risk of escape.
“We don’t want to have a fire escape. It could be pretty catastrophic and also hurt a program’s support, too,” he said.
Visdeck continued, “Anytime we do any kind of burning, it’s going to be costly, especially when we’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t escape. Cost is a big consideration.”
In Montana and other states, finding the expertise to perform prescribed fire treatments on land may present a challenge for private landowners.
“We can always find people to do thinning, piling and maybe burning the piles, but not many people will actually do the under-burning,” Visdeck noted. “That is a challenge to consider before starting a treatment program.”
Good planning is critical for prescribed fire program success, stressed Visdeck.
“We need to plan ahead of time for success and make sure we have our ducks lined up,” said Visdeck.
As an example, he noted that it is important to not use property lines as control boundaries but rather to ensure that there are defendable boundaries used in the plan.
“Whether we burn private land or state ground, as long as we have a good defendable boundary, such as road, that always helps,” he continued.
Doing pre-burn preparation to thin out some of the excess fuel also makes the burning treatment much easier, he explained.
Visdeck strongly encouraged landowners to visit with fire experts, such as Forest Service employees or the county fire department in their area, to gain insight on local considerations.
“There are people out there who know about weather and fuel issues and who have been dealing with them for a long time,” he concluded. “Most of those folks are good people who are willing to talk and help.”
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.