The post-fire assessment for the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) is out and the numbers are sobering.
BNF officials last week released a report which details the damage done by last summer’s wildfires and prioritizes the repair work that will be done—depending on congressional funding—over the next three to five years.
Last summer nearly 7 million acres burned in wildfires across the country; almost half of those acres were on the BNF. That’s three times the average acreage that burned on the forest in the past decade.
In five days, from July 30 to Aug. 3, more than 100 new fires started, mostly from lightning strikes. Three of every four of the new fire starts were staffed and controlled quickly. But firefighting resources were stretched thin across the country and the starts that were not staffed—because of a lack of firefighters and equipment—were the ones that got away.
As a result:
• roughly 307,000 acres, fully 20 percent of the Bitterroot National Forest, burned.
• nearly 15,000 firefighters were dispatched to the Forest Service’s Region One, which includes the Bitterroot National Forest.
• Montana businesses reported a total loss of $270 million.
• Montana outfitters lost $36 million in canceled trips.
• 70 homes, 170 structures (barns, outbuildings, etc.) and 94 vehicles burned.
Interestingly, the most severe burns occurred on private and state land, contradicting Gov. Marc Racicot’s claims that the Clinton Administration and the Forest Service mismanaged federal lands and in turn caused the disastrous fire season.
According to the Forest Service’s own statistics on burn severity, however, only 9 percent of the burned acreage in the BNF burned with high or moderate severity. Sixty-four percent of state and private land, on the other hand, burned with high or moderate severity.
Other critics also claimed that roaded areas burned less severely than roadless lands, but again, Forest Service statistics do not bear them out. Nine percent of roaded land was severely burned, compared to 7 percent of roadless land.
The BNF, often referred to by its own employees as a “poor forest” in terms of funding and staffing, is now faced with the daunting task of trying to rehabilitate burned areas over the next few years. An impressive amount work has already been done. Two hundred miles of fireline has been rehabbed with mulch and seeds; 117 acres (equal to 106 football fields) have been mulched with straw three inches deep; 175 culverts have been replaced; and 213 acres have been aerially reseeded, among other emergency rehabilitation projects.