Forest thinning to provide protective buffer around town

Posted: July 16, 2011

Source: West Yellowstone News

Douglas Fir Salvage timber It may not make sense to the casualpasserby.

As a matter of fact, it might even seem wrong.

But for many people who have lived in the rural Rocky Mountains, the project work going on north of West Yellowstone in Gallatin National Forest lands is comforting.

Gallatin Forest officials have begun a long-approved fire fuels reduction project on forest land around the perimeter of populated areas of West Yellowstone. That project is using a timber sale and thinning project to reduce the threat of an intense wildfire from rumbling through the town like a freight train.

The Hebgen Basin Fuels Reduction Project, approved in 2005, thins out areas of the Gallatin National Forest along the north and west edges of the town of West Yellowstone.

The understory thinning will produce lodgepole pine logs that will go to a sawmill run by RY Timber or a post-and-pole operator in Livingston. The removal of dead and down trees, and thinning of stands of timber will reduce the chances for spread of crown fires.

Active crown fires are typically fast-moving, intensely hot fires that hop from one crown of a tree to the next crown. Because of those characteristics, they are difficult to suppress.

The fuels reduction project generally induces a 13-foot spacing between crowns to reduce the opportunity for crown fires to spread, according to Steve Martell, the timber sale administrator for the Forest Service.

Work on the project began north of the town of West Yellowstone along the east side of Highway 191 and west of the boundary with Yellowstone National Park. As the area is thinned, crews will shift to areas north and east of the Madison Addition and along the west side of town, along Highway 20.

Treatments will also help maintain evacuation routes for the community of West Yellowstone along Highways 191 and 20. These highways provide access to and from the city in the event that an evacuation related to a large fire is needed.

Over the last five years the Forest has implemented all aspects of the project with the exception of the work that needs to be accomplished by the contractor. The commercial aspect of the project is the final component needed in the Hebgen Basin area.

To ensure the safety of visitors the Forest Service is implementing a human entry closure while heavy equipment is working in the area. The southern boundary of the closure is the West Yellowstone town limits. The closure extends north to Mile Marker 2 on Highway 191 and is bounded on the east by the Yellowstone National Park boundary and the west by State Highway 191.

Hebgen Lake District Ranger Cavan Fitzsimmons is hoping folks who lived through the 2007 Madison Arm wildland fire understand that this project is meant to help prevent a near-disaster posed by that fire from roaring through town.

The Madison Arm fire, which was a human-caused fire sparked by a campfire that started northwest of West Yellowstone, was blown northeast and away from the town. It quickly burned nearly 4,000 acres but the town was fortunate to have not been its path.

“What might be a three-month inconvenience (restricting access in portions of the forest) gives us 90 years of options,” Fitzsimmons said. “We need these options for (fire) tactics. Is it a good timber sale area? Hell no. But it sure is a fire protection concern.”

The fires in Texas and Arizona are examples of why thinning and fuel reduction projects are necessary, Gallatin National Forest spokeswoman Marna Daley added.

She also pointed out that Gallatin County officials made this project a priority as part of the county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

The project should remove about a million and a half board feet of wood over the life of the project. Forest Service officials have several years to complete the project, but hope it will be finished by fall.

During the length of the project, citizens are cautioned to watch for logging trucks entering the highway, perhaps five or 10 per day hauling logs out of the sites.