The wildfire events are starting earlier in the year and lasting almost all the way until the next fire season. And it's not just in the southwest part of the U.S. Fire seasons have lengthened in almost all national forests. And the size of those fires continues to grow in each incident.

The Bitterroot Valley is at the greatest risk of wildfires in the entire state of Montana. In the valley, Conner, Darby, Sula, Victor, Pinesdale and Charlos Heights are in the top 10 of all communities in highest danger from wildfires. That danger was evident only six years ago. In 2016, the Roaring Lion Fire southwest of Hamilton destroyed 16 homes, caused 600 families to evacuate and one life was lost. Todd McKay of the Bitterroot National Forest said the cost was estimated at $11 million.

The proposed "Bitterroot Front Project" will stretch from McClain Creek on the north to Trapper Creek on the south end of the Bitterroot Valley - about 144,000 acres. The project would reduce wildfire threats, especially in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). And that would include some partnerships in managing the forests.

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There are dense pockets of trees dying from insects such as mountain pine beetle, Douglas-fir bark beetle and western spruce budworm. The forest is proposing prescribed fire, non-commercial thinning and commercial cutting.

McKay said, "We need everybody at the table. And this is a big project - it's a needed project. We need to hear from this community in the next 30 days."

Bitterroot plan is part of national efforts against huge wildfires

The U.S. Forest Service "Wildfire Crisis Strategy" is a national plan that is guiding the Bitterroot Front Project. A news release described the Bitterroot plan as a landscape-scale proposal with a "Shared Stewardship Approach" which will include private landowners helping to work with the Bitter Root Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) and Good Neighbor Authority.

The public has until May 20 to look at the plan, see maps and comment. The details are at the Bitterroot National Forest website. Click on "Land and Resource Management." Then go to "Projects."You can also check with the Darby/Sula Ranger Station at 406 821-3913 and the Stevensville Ranger Station at 406 777-5461.

Written comments should include name, address and phone number, along with specific facts and supporting information. Include "Bitterroot Front Project" in the email subject line. You can also comment at the project website.

This is just the start of the process. There will be other comment periods, too. McKay said actual work would not start until next year at the earliest. The project boundary was kept large to include other resource issues. Again, private landowners are encouraged to be part of the plan. As McKay said, "Fire knows no boundaries."

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