Helena residents using grants for wildfire mitigation

Forester Devin Healy looks over a mitigation project in Helena’s South Hills.

National weather forecasters are predicting an average wildfire year for the Northern Rockies. Still, Helena fire specialists are busy taking out trees around the edge of town, preparing as much as they can. Computer models show that a wildfire in the hills just south of Helena could make its way in as far as the capitol building.

Landowners can apply for grants to help reduce the wildfire fuels on their property.

Lewis and Clark County mitigation project manager Pat McKelvey picked me up at the backdoor of the capitol building Wednesday morning. It was sunny and already getting pretty warm.

We started driving and he says people often think about wild-land fire as being far out…in the wild-lands. He then pointed to the hillside of trees, right in front of us.

“Well here you are, you’re right here a half-mile south of the capitol building and that’s wild-land urban interface, big time,” he said.

We stopped in this dense wooded area. Or, rather, it used to be dense.

“Today, I’m gonna be sawing some of these big pine trees down,” says Levi Cheff, owner and operator of Fire Solutions Incorporated. He was a man of his word, sawing down multiple tall trees. He was thinning an area of about 16 acres. He was walking between groups of trees—most of them killed by the Mountain pine beetle–taking them out one by one.

His colleague nearby was driving this machine called the masticator. It’s a skid-steer with a spinning rod of heavy metal teeth on the front. It basically grinds through any little tree in its way.

Forester Devin Healy was overseeing this project for the landowner, protecting the integrity of the ecosystem. He calls this a roadside fuel reduction project.

“To reduce the fire intensity in this area should a fire burn through here to improve access for emergency vehicles,” he says.

County Mitigation project manager Pat McKelvey says that’s a major priority in every direction around Helena. The roads are often too narrow, the trees too thick.

“When there’s smoke, fire, adrenaline running and the fire guys are trying to get in and the residents are trying to get out, we have that scenario playing out all over Helena,” McKelvey said.

Resident Ginger Agee lives on the big hill right behind the capitol building. Her home is beautiful and very wooden.

“We do have a shake-cedar sided home so I was pretty concerned about that,” she said.

A couple years ago she applied for a grant to thin the thick trees around her place. Her neighbors all did too. The hillside is emptier now, but safer.

“It was so much better,” she said. She’s learned to still keep a close watch for any new fire hazards. She makes sure to keep bushes away from her home and she’s always checking her rain gutters for leaves and debris.

“Those need to be cleaned out all the time, because if there is a fire and the sparks get into the rain gutters they can ignite what is in there,” she said.

Like the County’s Pat McKelvey says, fire mitigation is a year round job.