Tri-County FireSafe Working Group (TCFSWG) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to wildland fire mitigation planning, population protection, and meaningful projects to sustain forest health and natural aesthetics in wildland/urban interface settings. During 2018, TCFSWG partnered with local volunteer fire departments near Helena, Montana, to target high-risk communities for roadside fuels reduction projects through RSG! Program Wildfire Mitigation Grants.
Roadside fuels reduction was a priority for Helena departments when identifying mitigation projects due to the potential impact with evacuations for both residential and seasonal populations as well as considering firefighter safety. TCFSWG partnered with the following volunteer fire departments: Baxendale, Montana City, Tri-Lakes, and Wolf Creek/Craig Fire Service Area on four separate roadside fuels reduction projects.
Each fire agency was responsible for outreach with the targeted community, engaging residents, and landowners to join the project. All participating landowners had a cost-share and agreed to perform the maintenance needed to sustain the vegetation removal. Additionally, TCFSWG worked with participating property owners on separately funded fuels reduction projects closer to homes to create defensible space and further enhance the risk reduction to the property.
Through a combination of thinning and chipping, TCFSWG treated over 124 acres along the roadside project sites. Although some landowners remained resistant to treatment on their property, the departments were able to treat contiguous properties in their jurisdictions. The visibility of the roadside projects helped make inroads with some resistant landowners once they observed these fuels reduction projects were not ‘clear cuts’ of vegetation.
Already one project site has been tested by wildland fire. The 2019 North Hills Fire impacted the Tri-Lakes Fire Department project area on Snowdrift Road and Hauser Dam Road in August. The fuels reduction performed on Snowdrift Road provided firefighters with an area to anchor and burn from to hold the fire and contain it. The fuels reduction work along Hauser Dam Road helped to contain the fire and make the route safer for the evacuation of residents and the large campground in the area.
“The work that was performed by Tri-County FireSafe Working Group with the RSG grant from the International Association of Fire Chiefs was critical to the safety of firefighters and evacuees and provided a fire break to stop the fire from crossing into more populated areas” according to Bob Drake, Fire Chief, Tri-Lakes Fire Department.
Both TCFSWG and the local departments have worked to showcase the importance of these fuels reduction projects through local media
and outreach outlets, while also highlighting the need for continued mitigation work. This fall, they are using the example of the North Hills Fire to engage residents further and encourage mitigation on private and public land.
TCFSWG continues its work with roadside fuels reduction continues through a cross-boundary project on the Grizzly Gulch that involves landowners, the U.S. Forest Service, Tri-County FireSafe Working Group, Lewis and Clark County and the Montana Department of Natural Resources. The City of Helena will use some of the wood that is recovered from the project to supply firewood to needy families in the area.