Preparing for Wildfire on Montana Rangelands A Landowner's Guide
Of the more than 93 million acres that comprise Montana, more than 38 million are agricultural lands used for range and pasture. Montana’s livestock industry, which contributed $1.29 billion in cash receipts to the state’s economy in 2005 (Montana Agricultural Statistics), depends heavily on this abundant natural resource. As managers of these precious lands, you realize the importance of rangelands to our economy, quality of life, and the ecological health of Montana.
Wildfire can be a serious threat to the viability of livestock operations that are dependent on Montana’s grazingland resources. According to Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation figures, there have been 13,018 fires in the state since 2000. Only 380 of these burned more than 200 acres. However, in total, fire affected 3,322,939 acres statewide from 2000 through 2006.
What can you do to protect the rangelands that you manage from wildfire? Preparation is the key to containment and suppression.
If you encounter any problems with the file provided on this page, please contact Steve Becker at 406-587-6828.
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Preparing for Wildfire on Montana Rangelands: A Landowner's Guide (PDF; 76 KB)
The first step in being prepared for the fire season is communication. Having an open conversation about current mitigation strategies, resources available, and response plans will go a long way toward facilitating effective wildfire control activities. How can you communicate with all of the stakeholders?
- Attend public meetings
- Make phone calls
- Visit agency offices
- Ask questions at local gatherings (at the coffee shop, sports events, etc.)
- Basically...actively seek information
Talk to your neighbors about what they are doing now to prepare for the fire season and how they might be able to respond to fire reports in the area. There may be things you can do together to prevent the spread of fire, like strategically planning the location of fire breaks before a fire breaks out. Adjacent landowners are often the first responders to a fire. Be sure to gather and distribute a list of home and cell phone numbers for emergencies. If radios are used, notify everyone of a common channel that can be used for general conversation and emergency announcements. Private conversations can be held on other channels.
When organizing with neighboring landowners, these three steps and basic sample questions may help to guide the discussion.
- Identify potential fire hazards.
- Where are large tracts of overgrown, decadent vegetation located?
- Are there areas of rangeland that abut forest lands with a high fuel load?
- What areas are most susceptible or vulnerable to fire and need to be protected?
- List local resources.
- Which neighbors have heavy equipment?
- Does anyone have a vehicle with a water tank and pumping capabilities?
- Dialing 911 reaches the local fire department, but who are the emergency contacts for land management agencies that may be threatened?
- Can someone volunteer to be a point of contact for communication among neighbors, sort of like a local dispatcher?
- Develop an action plan.
- What tasks need to be done?
- Who will be responsible for those tasks?
- What resources will be utilized?
- Reassess seasonally. Hazards, resources, and other circumstances may change so that the action plan needs to be updated.
If your land borders public lands, be sure to talk to the managing agency about their wildfire strategies. Hearsay is often the means of gathering information about state and federal agencies. Don’t rely on it. Get the facts from the source. Be sure to ask about hazardous fuels mitigation activities taking place on public lands and how this might affect your property. Get specific details about fire suppression policy and response procedures. This applies to lessees also.
Find out what resources the local/rural fire department has to offer. Local fire departments have experience fighting rangeland wildfires and may have suggestions for wildfire preparedness specific to your area. In addition, the responsibility for fire suppression on private lands is primarily handled by local volunteer fire departments, which provide about 80 percent of initial wildfire attack in the United States according to the Bureau of Land Management. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service fire fighting resources in Montana often assist with initial wildfire attack and complement sustained fire fighting on public and private rangelands in Montana, but local volunteer fire departments are the greatest resource for private landowners working to reduce fire threats on their property.
Mechanical and Biological Options
Being armed with the proper equipment to help yourself or a neighbor may be essential to stopping a fire when it starts rather than seeing it spread across acres of grasslands unchecked. Consider carrying the following tools on your vehicle(s):
- Water packs or tanks able to pump water
- Shovels/Pulaski axes
Larger equipment will be necessary if a fire is not stopped immediately after it ignites. A water wagon or pickup-box water tank able to pump water is ideal. ATVs with a spray pump ready and filled with water are helpful as well. Ensure machinery such as tillage equipment and skidders are ready so hasty firebreaks can be constructed as needed.
If vulnerable or valuable areas of the operation are in particular danger, consider plowing a firebreak in anticipation of fire. There may not be time to construct firebreaks during a fire and preemptive firebreaks may be the best option.
Mowing strips of tall vegetation will make for strategic firebreaks as well. These areas will be even more effective if they are wetted at the time they are threatened by fire and can serve as a wet line. Also consider mowing or grazing areas with heavy or unutilized vegetation such as land with little historical use or around buildings.
Firebreaks should be at least 20-50 feet wide. Firebreaks may need to be wider depending on the fuel type and slope, and up to 100 feet wide in windy or steep areas. Especially consider building firebreaks around the following areas:
- Hay storage areas
- Outbuildings or other vulnerable headquarters areas
- Property boundaries as determined appropriate
Additional Water Supplies
When considering water supplies, think about water sources, water holding capacity, and the ability of fire fighting personnel to access the water using necessary equipment.
- Storage tanks for livestock watering system can provide additional water
- Install fittings on wells and retrofit irrigation pumps to make them accessible to fire department equipment
- Locate available hydrants and make them accessible to fire department equipment
- Install dry hydrants
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is responsible for the administration of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
The following activities are allowed on CRP land with prior approval by your local FSA office:
- Installing fireguards according to NRCS Firebreaks Standard 394 – Fireguards are allowed in high risk areas, such as transportation corridors, rural communities, and adjacent to farmsteads.
- Management Activities
- Managed Haying and Grazing
- Maintenance of CRP Vegetative Cover.
The following activities are allowed to control fires on CRP without prior approval by FSA:
- Destruction of CRP vegetative cover – In an attempt to reduce the amount of fuel on CRP acreage during a fire, the vegetative cover can be clipped, disked, or tilled. The CRP contract holder will be responsible for reestablishing vegetation that does not recover to pre-fire condition.
Wildfire Mitigation Assistance
Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) NRCS in Montana offers agricultural producers, including eligible farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners, several possible options for preventing or recovering from wildfires. These options include cost-shareable conservation practices that reduce soil erosion, address noxious weed infestations, reseed land, plant trees, and other conservation practices on burned land. EQIP also includes options that may help to prevent wildfires and/or minimize the impacts of wildfires. These options include cost-shareable conservation practices that plant green cover crops, plant field borders, install firebreaks, thin trees within forests for improved forest health, eliminate forest slash, and more. Eligible EQIP practices can be found on the Montana NRCS EQIP Web page.
Other Funding Assistance
The Montana Department of natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) offers two National Fire Plan fuels mitigation grant programs. The Wildland Urban Interface Grant program provides cost-share funds on a competitive basis to reduce fuels on private lands of the western U.S. DNRC also offers the Community Protection Fuels Mitigation Grant. These funds are used to reduce fuels on private lands that are adjacent to federal lands where prescribed fire activities are planned in order to minimize threats to private property.
The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have helped to initiate community assistance funding, which provide technical and financial resources to county agencies in Montana to address wildfire prevention on private lands. In turn, local agencies or groups use the assistance to improve local wildfire preparedness and implement on-the-ground projects such as hazardous fuel reduction and firebreaks around ranch headquarters and other building sites. Sponsoring agencies may be different in every community. Contact the resources listed below to find out what assistance they have to offer in regards to fire prevention.
Many counties in Montana are also developing community wildfire protection plans through Community Assistance Program funding to address local wildfire issues and threats.
For More Information
Nearly every community in the West is considering wildfire prevention. Montana counties and towns are no exception. Get involved in the discussion. You may be able to help form local policy that will affect your property and you might find out about opportunities for assistance in implementing activities on your land.
Points of contact for more information regarding wildfire mitigation activities and financial and technical assistance in your area are:
Wildfire Preparedness on Montana’s Rangelands: Online Resources
The NRCS website provides information about technical and financial assistance that may be available for wildfire rehabilitation as well as links for current fire information. The publication, “Wildfire Rehabilitation Assistance: What can you do to protect your home and property after a wildfire?” is also available.
The DNRC has information on their Fire Prevention webpage ranging from burning debris safely to precautions that hunters can take in the field.
In addition, DNRC area land offices often host regional preseason fire meetings of the federal, state, and county agencies involved in fire suppression. To find out more about these meetings in your area, contact the DNRC area land office or unit office listed on Find Your Local Forester.
When planning for fire prevention on your agricultural operation, don’t forget the ol’ homestead. Information about having a “Firewise” home and yard is available online.
Montana State University Extension
An abundance of information also exists about what to do after a fire. “After Wildfire: Information for landowners coping with the aftermath of wildfire,” is a publication available from your local MSU Extension Service.