What do they mean by “hazardous fuel” at Cathedral Mountain?
Hazardous fuel is generally an accumulation of naturally occurring or man caused flammable materials around the ranch that could affect the ignition, movement or intensity of a wildfire that poses a risk to persons (residents and fire fighters), structures (homes and lodge) or infrastructure (water system, utilities, escape/defense routes, etc.). Hazardous fuels could be anything from firewood piles and stored building materials to accumulations of dry forest floor duff (leaves, pine needles, cones, moss, etc.), stumps, dead branches and roots, woody bushes and other dead or live vegetation to a 2 meter (6 foot) height.
What is “ladder fuel”?
Our foresters and contractors informed the Committee that technically-speaking, there are four categories of fuel types commonly referred to in wildfire discussions: ground fuels, surface fuels, ladder fuels and canopy fuels. In discussions at CMR, “surface fuels” (litter layer, downed woody materials and dead or live plants to the 6 foot height) and “ladder fuels” (those fuel materials that provide a vertical connection between the surface or ‘understory’ and the forest canopy) are lumped together for our discussions. At CMR the most common ladder fuel includes dead or live foliage with low-moisture or high pitch contents, draped dead limbs and branches (particularly those with an abundance of small twigs or dry pine needles), hanging or broken branches, and standing or partially fallen dead or diseased trees.
An important wildfire defensive objective is to prevent a more manageable/defensible ground or grass fire from ‘climbing’ and creating a more severe ‘canopy’ wildfire that typically have less predictable behavior, are tough and dangerous to contain, and extremely difficult to protect or defend homes or structures against.
Why are we cutting and removing some live evergreen trees and branches?
Actual project activity by our contractor has included the intentional removal of some green boughs to a prescribed height to address ladder fuel concerns. Also, some selective thinning of live trees has occurred. The removal of any live green material is a concern to some members as is the resulting ‘groomed’ or ‘park-like’ appearance of the demonstration areas after the grant project work has been conducted.
The simple answer or reason for some green material being removed is: (a) Because ‘live fuels’ can actually be more combustible than ‘dead fuels’ and our professional foresters and fire professionals have recommended that certain green material be removed, (b) Our grant requires compliance with prescribed standards for reimbursement of our grant project expenses, and (c) After considerable research and inquiry by the Committee, we believe it is a sound stewardship practice and makes good sense at CMR.
A more complete answer is: During the initial ‘walk about’ CMR with forest management and fire defense professionals, several relevant wildfire and related general forest health conditions were pointed out and corrective actions recommended.
Depending on the age, moisture content and fuel characteristics (twig density, needle conditions, ratio of old to new growth, etc.) live limbs and green boughs below a prescribed height can be considered as hazardous ‘live’ and/or ‘ladder’ fuels. These green but variably flammable materials could allow a less destructive ground or grass fire to propagate up a tree and into the forest canopy. Although in the thicker CMR conifer stands green boughs represent a minor percentage of the total fuel below the prescribed (6 foot) treatment height, it was recommended, or required, that those live limbs and boughs also be removed during treatment.
To relieve stress conditions in CMR evergreen stands caused by both normal seasonal moisture variations and the prolonged drought, to reduce competition for sustaining moisture and to increase disease resistance, it was recommended that selective culling of certain live trees be included as a condition of our fuels reduction prescription. Specific examples of live trees selectively designated for removal are those already dying or diseased, those with extensive wind or lightning damage and certain “leaners” that presented a wind-fall risk to homes or critical wildfire escape/defense routes. It was advised that selective culling also include thinning within certain dense evergreen clusters to provide safer/healthier “crown separation” from a wildfire perspective, enhance the age diversity within the stand and improve moisture conditions and survivability of the more healthy trees.
Our forestry advisors have underscored the often-critical status of ‘live fuel’ moisture conditions during the summer (fire season) months throughout the forests along the flanks of the Beartooth Plateau, including CMR. The Committee learned that, during recent fire seasons, measurements of the live fuel moisture in local forests have approached, or have even dropped below, the moisture content of the kiln-dried lumber that one would buy at the lumber store. Fuel moisture content is among the most important fuel characteristics affecting fire behavior. Moisture absorbs heat released during combustion, making less heat available to preheat fuel particles to ignition.
The live foliage of evergreens is usually more combustible than that of deciduous species (aspens, willows, choke cherry, etc.). There are several reasons, but differences in their natural moisture contents are most important. All deciduous foliage (leaves, buds, flowers, berries, etc.) is the current year's growth, and it maintains relatively high moisture content during most of the growing (and fire) season. However, evergreens retain their foliage (pine needles, etc.) for a number of years and have much lower average foliage moisture as the growing season progresses. Because they retain old leaves for several years, evergreens have a more complex pattern of seasonal moisture content. In general, old needles reach their lowest moisture content as new needles are being formed. Among the evergreens there is also greater tendency for trees to maintain a relatively more flammable mixture of live and dead foliage (pine needles), branches, and twigs. This is more pronounced in the oldest and lower portions of the tree.
Different species of evergreen trees at CMR (Firs, Pines, Spruce, etc.) naturally retain a season's crop of foliage for different periods of years. The length of time between sloughing-off of old foliage may also vary within individual species, from one growing season, to five or more, depending on variations in natural moisture content and foliage ratios (dead/live needles) resulting from age, soil conditions, sun/wind exposure, general health, stress from root damage during road or home construction, and stand density (crowding and competition for moisture and sunlight). Normally, foliage characteristics and live moisture content is mostly a result of the weather-dictated character of the growing season. However, prolonged drought can override the shorter-term positive effects on an evergreen’s moisture content from seasonal precipitation and eventually prove fatal to major branches or whole trees. Certain of these natural conditions or effects that ultimately contribute to hazardous wildfire fuel conditions at CMR can be removed or mitigated by the prescribed ladder fuel treatment, selective culling/thinning standards, and species diversity recommendations under our hazardous fuels reduction Grant program.
For anyone interested in monitoring the estimated live and dead fuel moisture conditions across the US, the Wildland Fire Assessment System produces daily maps on the US Forest Service website. Click to visit this Forest Service Website.
Why didn’t the Committee and contractor just gather up all the old and unsightly dead trees around CMR?
We understood from the onset, that a comprehensive clean up of diseased and dead trees on the CMR property would be a huge and likely pricey undertaking for the membership. When the CMRA Directors and Committee decided to apply for a Western States Wildlands Interface Grant, we did so with the understanding that any government grant funding would likely come with certain “strings attached”. We also knew from prior research and discussions with the State DNRC grant program coordinator, that administrative rigor, performance conditions, and standards compliance would be part of the deal. The Committee learned during early site visits and meetings with Montana DNRC and forestry personnel that, although unattractive to CMR residents, many of the dead trees on the ranch did not pose a significant wildfire risk to residents or property. It was also determined that the Committee should not address, or direct CMRA’s contractor to conduct grant project work on private lots without the express consent of the owner.
Prudence and common sense dictated that the Committee address the many challenges one step at a time, and over a prolonged period, to ensure that our program appetite and enthusiasm did not exceed the physical and financial capabilities of CMRA to conduct any work plan to be proposed in our grant application. The Committee was advised that if successful with our first grant application, chances for continued program funding were significantly better if our initial grant project could confirm to the agencies CMRA’s ability to rally support of its members, organize the program, satisfy matching all requirements and standards, and complete the project we plan and implement during the designated grant period. The Committee determined that whatever the area size and scope of the initial project, if it were done well and could be “showcased” to the grant agencies, the chances for CMRA securing future financial support were greatly enhanced.
The initial grant program scope, project areas, and designation of contractor or member tasks were determined and prioritized on the basis of several criteria, including:
How does the matching part of our fuels reduction grant work?
Basically, CMRA is financially responsible for conducting or contracting the actual fuel reduction work. We accomplish this by retaining and paying a contractor (Fireline Fire Protection Services) to do certain work, use our own (CMRA and private) equipment and apply commercial rates, and actually do a lot of the physical work ourselves and ‘charge the project’ a fixed hourly rate established under the grant contract. We also accrue administrative time and other expenses for implementing the program. Under the grant these various activities constitute either an “in-kind match” (contractor charges, equipment operating expenses, labor, etc.) or “soft match” (administrative time, Committee time, educational material, etc.) that can qualify for matching funds from the grant. For our part of the match, the only money that changes hands is the payment by CMRA of the Fireline invoices for contracted services. If we successfully pass the grant project site inspections, that money is reimbursed from grant funds. All CMRA member and Committee time is donated, but those hourly charges accrue to satisfy our matching requirement.
Prescribed treatment standards and administrative protocol for the grant program are established at the Federal level but administered at the State level (Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation). Regional or State agencies have some flexibility and limited authority to modify or tailor the prescribed performance standards for the grant based on local conditions. The grant recipient (CMRA) entered a contractual agreement with the State-appointed Grant Administrator (in CMRA’s case: Beartooth Resource Conservation and Development Area, Inc. (RC&D)) defining the compliance conditions for reimbursement of project costs incurred during the program.
Time record collection, cost accounting and administration of the grant project is a critical part of our grant project…and a lot of work (THANK YOU Sandi!!!). Our contractor submits an invoice to CMRA generally on a monthly (or approximately $5,000 incremental) basis. CMRA pays the contractor from its general operating account. On a regular basis an accounting of our expenses and matching account accruals are submitted to the grant administrator for reimbursement of 50% of all allowable program “expenses”. Before grant funds are disbursed to CMRA, our local grant administrator (J.T. Smith of Beartooth RC&D) must inspect and confirm, to the State RC&D office in Missoula, that submitted project work satisfies the performance standards and prescribed treatment conditions established under our contract. When all grant requirements (project work and administrative) are completed, RC&D forwards a payment to CMRA. If work in-progress within a predetermined active project sector is not completed to grant standards at the time of inspection, RC&D have been very accommodating in determining the percentage completed, and reimbursing a proportionate amount of our project expenses. If we do not complete a project area to prescribed fuel reduction standards, RC&D is not obligated to reimburse CMRA expenses.
It is very important that members maintain a record of their time and expenses for hazardous fuels activities, on their own lots or CMRA common lands, and regularly forward that information to Sandi for inclusion in the grant program records.
How does cutting branches and removing dead material help improve the health of the trees at CMR?
There are several positive effects of the prescribed fuel reduction protocol. Reducing the risk of a catastrophic wildfire, either starting on CMR or migrating into CMR from adjacent public lands, is obviously one positive element. Improving the safety and ability for fire teams to defend our homes, lodge and infrastructure from wildfire is another positive. Improving the health of our wooded areas and improving wildlife habitat are another, perhaps less obvious benefits.
The prescribed treatment includes removing dead surface fuels and ladder fuels from among the trees, and some thinning/culling in more crowded evergreen stands. The prescribed activity has several positive effects but the more obvious include: (a) the host materials supporting the incubation and continued spread of woodland diseases (blister rust spores, etc.) and insect infestations are reduced, (b) as ‘armoring’ surface cover is removed, the soil and duff layers ‘roughed up’, and the understory thinned, improvement to natural soil organism balance as well as moisture and sunlight infiltration conditions occurs. (c) Improving the surface and soil conditions, improves soil nutrient availability for plants, increases infiltration of precipitation, reduces surface run-off and erosion, and provides additional sustaining soil moisture for uptake by trees and shrubs. Similarly, ‘opening up’ the surface promotes germination and sustained growth of a more diverse plant community (natural grasses, forbs, wild flowers, etc.) in wooded areas currently choked by hazardous fuel debris.
With improved species diversity and surface conditions, less competition for nutrients and moisture in thinned evergreen stands, and reduced host habitat contributing to disease and insect infestations, general woodland health should improve. Healthy trees are much more capable of resisting disease, countering insect infestation, and rebounding from natural and man-caused stress.