Fire crews across Montana have been taking advantage of milder weather to work on containing the state’s biggest wildfires.
Restoration efforts are beginning on the Corral Fire site North of Helena—a fire that destroyed 4 homes.
“I felt shock at seeing this beautiful land burning,” said Helena physician Steve Behlmer about first visiting his 220 acres of land in the Scratchgravel Hills after the fire started.
It’s undeveloped land, no structures. It was heavily forested. Although, in many places now there’s not much of anything but ash and the charred skeletons of pine trees.
He says probably 80 to 90 percent of his land was destroyed.
BLM Rangeland Management Specialist Roger Olsen is leading the restoration of the public land burned. The majority of the nearly three square miles burned was BLM land. He says this fire showcases just how important fire mitigation efforts can be. Olsen points up to one hillside formerly packed with trees—where some of the highest intensity burning took place.
“You can almost draw a line directly where our treatment is and on the one side of the line you have solid black, your trees are burnt from the bottom to the ground,” Olsen said.
On the other side of the line, trees are still burnt. Trees are still dead. But not all of them—in fact, many will be just fine. Crews had thinned many of the trees in this field. You can see how many trees used to be here, as blackened stumps pop-up from the earth by the dozens.
“And you can just imagine if all those trees would have been still standing when that fire ran through here,” Olsen said.
Olsen says after firefighters fully contain a blaze, crews then come in to assess the need for emergency stabilization efforts—like securing soil on a steep hillside that may no longer have the support of any vegetation.
Then the full restoration begins.
Olsen says the state will assess what the landscape will be able to do on its own. Looking back up at the black hillside, he says workers usually need to replant.
“In a lot of the areas that burnt so hot we lost a lot of the natural seed bank that was in the soils because of the accumulation of fuels,” he said. “So we were gonna go back in and help seed that so maybe we can get that place to return to native vegetation rather than being overcome by introduced and noxious weeds.”
Just two weeks after the Corral Fire, green plants are already starting to poke back up.
“But a lot of it is the weeds because this area did have a large weed population,” he said.
BLM will start spraying for the weeds. Olsen says sometimes they even bring in specially trained sheep that eat the weeds. He says some fires get a year or two of restoration work “and then there’s other fires where it’s possibly 5 to 6 years where you’re constantly doing large scale projects.”
A place like the Scratchgravel Hills, he says they might be spraying for weeds from now on.
“Fire is a risk, and I’d always known it’d be a risk here. Just, I didn’t, it didn’t seem real until it happened,” Steve Behlmer said.
He knows his land will never look the same again in his lifetime. He hopes the area can rally together and move forward as a community.
Several local fundraisers have been set up for the families who have lost their homes.