Wedge Canyon 10 years later

Following is an article about North Fork fire mitigation efforts since the Wedge fire written by Molly Shepherd in anticipation of our Firewise Day workshop. It appeared in place of Larry Wilson’s column in the Hungry Horse News on July 3, 2013.

Ten years ago, on July 18, 2003, a lightning strike in the Whitefish Range ignited the Wedge Canyon Fire.  Before the fire finally died out in the Fall, it had destroyed seven homes and twenty-nine outbuildings between Whale Creek and Trail Creek.  54,400 acres burned.  The costs of fighting the fire and protecting structures exceeded $50 million.

The Wedge Canyon Fire was only one of many large wildfires that have burned across the North Fork Valley.  Indeed, fire has been second only to glaciation in shaping the valley’s landscape.  But because of its cost, destructiveness and duration, Wedge Canyon served as a catalyst for change.  The North Fork Landowners’ Association appointed a diverse committee to explore what might be done to mitigate the effects of future wildfires.

Members of the Fire Mitigation Committee reached several understandings based on the North Fork’s fire history and the probability of future fires.  One was that it’s safer, cheaper and more effective to abate hazards before a fire starts.  Another was that although landowners have neither the ability nor the desire to eliminate fire from the valley, we can and should ameliorate the risks that it poses to our homes and the costs associated with defending them.

Since Wedge Canyon, the committee has obtained three grants from the DNRC to help North Fork landowners reduce hazardous fuels on their properties.  Response to the voluntary cost-sharing program has been remarkable.  The first two grants resulted in more than 100 home wildfire inspections with treatment prescriptions.  Fuels reduction work was completed under about 100 separate cost agreements.  At least 500 acres of private property were treated with grant money.  Probably even more acres were treated without any financial assistance.  Projects funded by the third grant are underway, several of which seek to protect multiple homes and to afford safe ingress and egress for landowners and firefighters.

Private fuel treatments are just part of the story, however.  Only about 14,500 acres–less than three per cent of the total acreage in the North Fork Valley–are in private hands.  Given this reality, the Fire Mitigation Committee decided that landowners needed to collaborate with federal and state agencies to reduce risk.

The agencies were receptive.  Our shared premise has been that public and private efforts should complement one another, with homes being the focal point.  Both the Forest Service and the DNRC have planned and implemented major fuels reduction projects in consultation with the committee and other landowners.  It’s been a model of public and private partnership, leveraging the effectiveness of one another’s efforts.

This month, the Fire Mitigation Committee will sponsor a workshop marking the tenth anniversary of the Wedge Canyon Fire.   We’ll look back to conditions at the time of the Wedge Fire, assess what’s changed in the intervening ten years, and consider the potential effects of the changes on future fires.   The event will serve as our annual Firewise Day.

Presenters include Wally Bennett, who was Type I Incident Commander during the Wedge Fire.  He’ll share his perspectives on the fire and on how subsequent fuels reduction projects might affect future fire behavior and suppression efforts.   In addition, committee member Allen Chrisman will examine North Fork fire history and climate change.  Michael Dardis will discuss fuels projects undertaken by the Forest Service since Wedge; Brian Manning will do the same on behalf of the DNRC.  Bill Swope will review what’s been accomplished with the help of grants and touch upon some ongoing concerns, among them ingress and egress.

The North Fork Firewise Day workshop will be held on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 from 9:30 a.m. to noon in Sondreson Community Hall, immediately preceding the Summer Interlocal Meeting.    We hope to see you then.

Molly Shepherd, Chair
North Fork Landowners’ Association’s
Fire Mitigation Committee

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Molly Shepherd is the Co-Chairperson of the Fire Mitigation Committee and a past President of the NFLA.

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