An accidental wildfire scorched about 391 acres on the west side of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge north of Stevensville last Friday when a slash pile fire was blown out of control by high afternoon winds. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire management team was burning ditches and some slash piles last Friday when one of the slash pile fires north of Burnt Fork Creek was blown out of control by high winds.
Metcalf Refuge Manager Tom Reed was working elsewhere in the refuge when he saw the smoke rising up over by the river around 1:20 p.m. He drove over and saw the slash pile fire had jumped out in some strong winds. He called the Bitterroot National Forest, which responds to wildfire on the refuge and “the response was immediate,” he said. But the wind was too strong and the fire already too big to stop at that spot. It raged northward between the river and an interior roadway running through the refuge. Reed said they were able to get out ahead of it and back burn, essentially containing the fire by Friday night. Reed said the rain that came Friday night and Saturday helped a lot.
Mike Granger, USFWS Fire Management Officer for the State of Montana, whose crew was implementing the burn when it got out of control, said that the number of very large burned cottonwood trees represent an extreme danger following the fire and the area would probably remain off limits to everyone for a number of days.
Reed said that it was not a total disaster. No one was injured and no structures were burned. He said the grassy areas would grow back and the pine forest would regenerate and recover well. He said burning off the 18” to 24” thick pine duff on the forest floor was probably a good thing. But the loss of so many big old cottonwoods, especially near the river, was “an incredible loss.”
He said several species of animal on the refuge use those cottonwood galleries. He is already making plans to try and begin the regeneration by finding good specimens that might be protected with fencing until they grow beyond browsing size.
“I wouldn’t choose this,” said Reed. “These old cottonwoods that burned will take decades to replace. But maybe we can make some lemonade out of this lemon.”
Reed said that he was especially thankful to the Bitterroot National Forest and Three Mile Volunteer firefighters that responded to the scene.
“The response was tremendous, very appreciated and very quick,” he said.