As the flame front crested the ridgeline flanking Sawmill Creek it was racing south as fast as a man could run. Although the winds were light that July day, the temperature was in the low 90s and it hadn’t rained in weeks. Balls of flame were crowning in the treetops, jumping from tree to tree driven by winds the fire was creating on its own. Firefighters estimate the temperature on the forest floor was close to 2,000 degrees.
It wasn’t the worst Montana wildfire during the summer of 2021, but for those who lived through it the Harris Mountain Fire was devastating. In the two weeks it took to bring it under control the Harris Mountain Fire burned close to 32,000 acres of private, state and federal timberland, much of it prime wildlife habitat, home to herds of Rocky Mountain elk, Mule deer, black bear and mountain lion.
One of the private property owners most deeply impacted by the Harris Mountain Fire is Don Harland. Within two days after the fire started on July 23, Harland and his family lost 12 structures on their Sheep Creek Ranch, including the family lodge and hunting camp. In addition, most of the nearly 4,600 acres of timberland Harland owns was critically damaged.
“This area we’re looking at right now was just black,” Harland said taking in the view from a promontory overlooking the Sheep Creek drainage basin. Everything was washing down into the creeks. It was a disaster.”
“I guess when you own land like this you find that you’re in love with it,” Harland said of his grief at the loss of his forest. “You’re the steward of this land. You want to take care of it just like you would your children or your family, and you want to leave it better than when you found it or at least as good.”
The landscape Harland was referring to looked verdant in new spring growth. Its valleys and hillsides are covered in a lush carpet of green grass, with eye-popping displays of wildflowers seemingly around ever corner. Mother Nature had already replaced much of the ground cover on the mountain slopes; yet the landscape was haunted by an expanse of blackened trees stretching as far as the eye can see.
Wildfire is, of course, a natural part of the life of a forest. Low intensity fires are actually beneficial to a forest, clearing away dead and congested undergrowth, releasing nitrogen into the soil, and opening up areas to new growth and regeneration. However, when a fire burns at too great an intensity it damages the soil, destroying seed stocks, micro-organisms and nutrients needed by trees to begin the natural reforestation process. This is what happened on the Sheep Creek Ranch.
“When you take a step back in time and you look at the role fire played historically … we’re looking at an 80-year regrowth cycle,” said Zach Bashoor, a forest resource manager and founder of Montana Forest Consultants Inc. “That’s in a perfect world. Now we are seeing hotter and drier summer seasons with fires that burn at a much higher intensity. there’s no guarantee that the forests will return at all. We’re watching forests burn and become grassland and brushland, with no reforestation happening at all.”
Bashoor was one of the first people Harland contacted as he set about seeing what he could do to restore his land. Harland and Bashoor had collaborated in the past developing a plan for the sustainable harvest of timber from the Sheep Creek Ranch.
He represents a new generation of foresters taking a more intensive approach to forest management that includes developing new techniques in response to the increased frequency of devastating forest fires. Those techniques include a deep analysis of terrain, soil, vegetation, climate, and wildlife down to individual sections of land.
“We’ve got a very deep and intimate connection with Montana ecosystems,” he explained of his consulting services. “We can provide input on what trees are supposed to be and where, taking the landowners objectives into account with our prescriptions. That way we know what’s going out here is going to stand the best chance of surviving.”
The general concept is that as the forests of the western United States are exposed hotter, longer, and more destructive wildland fire seasons they need to be managed more intensely. The goal is to use every tool available through the ever-expanding understanding of biological processes to develop forests that regenerate faster and are less susceptible to catastrophic fire.
Bashoor referred Harland to MAST Reforestation, a company Bashoor had not worked with before but was developing a reputation for using drones, nurseries, and carbon offsets to revitalize land after wildfires, often at minimal cost to the property owner.
Up until that time MAST Reforestation was primarily dedicated to reforestation projects in California and Washington state, but was eager to expand its operations into Montana. After developing a working relationship with Bashoor and Harland, MAST, which draws its name from the botanical term for the fruits of forest trees and shrubs, accepted Sheep Creek Ranch reforestation project as its pilot project in the state.
“We’re a technology forward company managed by foresters, which is unique … all in support in helping landowners recover as quickly as possible,” Arnoud de Villegas, Vice-president of Development for MAST Reforestation, said. “The innovation we bring is in seed sourcing and processing, and then in developing new stock types and growing shorter rotation seedlings much faster to get that reforestation back in the ground as quickly as possible.”
“There really wasn’t anything for us until we met with MAST,” Harland said of his reforestation prospects immediately following the Harris Mountain Fire. “We’re the pilot project for them and it’s scary as hell. There’s a lot at risk for us and MAST, but it’s coming together. My dream burnt up, but we just keep moving forward and doing the best that we can.”
“The process began with an extensive mapping project,” explained de Villegas. “With that we were able to develop a sophisticated reforestation plan that took into consideration slope, aspect, soils, the availability of native seeded.”
To continue reading this article, please go here.