Bruce Windhorst is a happy man. For the past few weeks he’s been lighting controlled burns on the Stevensville Ranger District as part of his job as regional fire manager. For the most part, the burns have been extremely successful and complaints about them have been few.
But Windhorst is aware that the work he does in the national forest is highly visible from the valley floor. “If we burn five acres on these Westside canyons it looks like we burned 100 acres,” Windhorst says. “The Stevensville Ranger District’s forest can be seen by everyone from Hamilton to Florence.”
For the past two weeks, Windhorst and his crews have been doing a series of low-intensity understory burns on the McCalla Creek Ridge and along the face of St. Mary’s mountain. In three separate ignitions, the burns will cover 270 acres and are accomplishing a number of important objectives, Windhorst says.
The fires reduce fuel loading and remove the understory of Douglas fir and spruce. The burns are designed to reduce or eliminate those species and allow the ponderosa pine and western larch to take their place back on the mountain.
“There is a significant western larch and ponderosa pine component on the mountain now,” Windhorst says. “We’re trying to return the mountain to a more natural condition. The burns allow us to clean things up on our terms, rather than on Mother Nature’s. We don’t want a catastrophic wildfire.”
Conditions have been very favorable for the burns in the past few days, Windhorst says. Most of the smoke from the fires drifted over the ridges or along the tree line, away from the populated valley floor. However, the Forest Service office has received calls from people worried about the smoke pollution and complaining about breathing problems.
“We are aware of the folks who have respiratory problems and we try to minimize their discomfort,” Windhorst says. “The smaller burns are more easily controlled than large wildfires that would pour a lot more smoke in here.”
Depending on the weather, humidity levels and how quickly the project is finished in St. Mary’s, a number of other burns are planned for later this spring. Windhorst hopes to burn 750 acres on Sweeny Creek and do a small remedial burn on Sweathouse Creek.
“A lot of factors go into deciding to burn,” Windhorst said. “We only have a few windows of opportunity each spring and we’re trying to take advantage of them for the health of the forest.