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Grassroots Project Reduces Wildfire Threats

April 2013

Forests throughout the West are being decimated by epidemic infestations of the mountain pine bark beetle and other pests. As the trees die and lose their needles, the potential threat of wildfire increases. A group of concerned citizens (landowners, foresters, federal, state, and county agencies) came together in Lewis and Clark County, Mont., to develop a proactive approach to reducing the threat of wildfire and the devastation that follows.

A good project starts from the bottom up, according to Mindy Gauthier, district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Helena. “It is built on the knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment to protecting our natural resources that is shared by landowners, NRCS field staff, and other agency partners,” she said.

One part of their plan included the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), an NRCS financial assistance program. EQIP has been around since the 1996 Farm Bill; however, forestry assistance was limited until passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, which put greater emphasis on the conservation of nonindustrial private forest lands.

In 2010, NRCS in Lewis and Clark and Jefferson counties offered the first EQIP fuel break initiative. The program assisted landowners reduce hazardous fuel loads in forested areas and create defensible and survivable space around houses and outbuildings. The program required landowners to remove dead vegetation within the fuel break area, thin remaining live trees and shrubs to 10 feet or more, and to address ladder fuels. NRCS contracted with 40 landowners to install 1,454 acres of fuel breaks on private land. Financial assistance totaled $878,058. Another sign-up was held in 2011 in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, Granite, and Powell counties. NRCS contracted with 32 landowners to address more than 1,500 additional acres and provided $1.03 million in financial assistance.

In this photos, brown trees can be seen in an area not thinned.

Thinning trees in the forest creates a fuel break and also disrupts the movement of pine bark beetles. Trees that have not been thinned are brown in color, dying from pine bark beetle infestations. June 2010.

In this photo, a dense tree stand is shown.

In 2010, NRCS offered the first fuel break initiative in Lewis and Clark and Jefferson counties to thin areas dense with trees that created a wildfire hazard. March 2011.

In this photo, a fuel break is shown.

NRCS contracted with 40 landowners to create 1,454 acres of fuel breaks by removing dead vegetation, thinning remaining live trees and shrubs to 10 feet or more in distance, and removing fuel ladders. This fuel break protects the home of Thomas Walchak in Lewis and Clark County. December 2011.

Three of the fuel breaks were put to test during the July 2012 Corral Fire located in the Scratchgravel Hills outside of Helena. The Corral Fire burned 1,851 acres of private and Bureau of Land Management land.

In early July 2012, Gustaaf Schippers of Helena received a call ordering him to evacuate his house due to fire danger. Schippers, his wife Yvonne, and their two dogs moved into a hotel for three days, not sure if they would ever see their house again. Luckily, they had worked to prepare for this situation by developing a forest management plan.

Partnering with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, NRCS developed a proactive plan reduce potential impacts of wildfires. This plan thinned the density of trees on the Shippers’ property to reduce risk and control the spread of fire, reduce the mortality from the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle and other insects, and to maintain the land ecologically as a forested area.

Their project was completed in February 2011, and the fire occurred in July 2012. It stopped about 100 yards from their house, almost on a direct line of where the fuel break begins. “We are so happy our home was saved,” says Schippers. “But I know that living in the forest is not just doing a practice once. It’s ongoing.”

Gordon Levin, a Helena resident impacted by the 2012 Corral Fire, said that by participating in the programs to reduce hazardous fuel loads offered by NRCS and other agencies provided him the education, financial assistance, and technical information needed to create a defensible space on his property that helped save his home.

Levin lives on the other side of the ridge from the Schippers. Levin, like the Schippers, was also preparing in the event of wildfire. His house was constructed with fire resistant materials, and worked with Tri-County Firewise to thin trees around his house and with NRCS to install a fuel break on the hillsides surrounding his house. When wildfires swept through the Helena area in 2012, the fire stayed within the fuel break, giving fire fighters time to drop water on the fire, saving the house. “It’s not one thing that saved the house but the combination of all the efforts Mr. Levin took,” Gauthier said. “Mr. Levin has worked with multiple agencies and utilized all of the resources available to him.”

This photo show trees surrounding a house.


Dense and dead trees create a wildfire hazard near the home of John and Rita Urbanski in Lewis and Clark County. December 2012.

This photo shows fewer trees around the house.


A fuel break near the home of John and Rita Urbanski will slow the spread of wildfire, creating a safe barrier for the home in Lewis and Clark County. January 2013.

This photo show blackened tree trunks after fire has passed through the area.


The Corral Fire burned 1,851 acres of private and Bureau of Land Management land in the Scratchgravel Hills outside of Helena. July 2012.

In this aerial photo it can be seen that trees near the house are widely spaced.


By removing dead vegetation, thinning remaining live trees and shrubs to 10 feet or more in distance, and removing fuel ladders, fuel breaks slow wildfire. This provides firefighters time to use retardants or for hand crews to construct “fire lines,” strips of land cleared of flammable materials and dug down to mineral soil. August 2012.

In this photo, the house is surrounded by a less-dense stand of trees.


In early July 2012, Gustaaf Schippers and his wife, Yvonne, of Helena evacuated their house because of the threat of wildfire. They had worked with NRCS to prepare for this situation by developing a forest management plan to thin dense trees, reducing the risk of fire and mortality from the mountain pine bark beetle, and maintaining the land ecologically as a forested area. July 2012.

Photo shows undamaged house amidst burned trees.


Gordon Levin, Helena, thinned trees around his house and worked with NRCS to install a fuel break on the hillsides surrounding his house. When wildfires came in 2012, the fire stayed within the fuel break, giving fire fighters time to drop water on the fire, saving the house.