Friday, July 19, 2024

Burning questions answered

| April 7, 2024 12:00 AM

“There’s this thing called traditional knowledge,” veteran forester Rick Trembath said, leveling with me after his two-hour presentation on burning last month at Flathead Valley Community College.

He recalled doing work around Northwest Montana, sometimes alongside the firefighting Chief Mountain Hotshots, out of Browning, at the time under the leadership of Lyle St. Goddard. “We would talk for hours,” Trembath said, still savoring the conversation.

On my recent drives along U.S. 93, I had seen the plumes. Instead of cringing that it was wildfire, I’d smile because it meant someone was cleaning up a pile — a burn pile, that is, and a chore that many yearn to tick off the list. In the years I lived outside Montana, my shoulder-season calls home sometimes led with my mom saying, “We did a big burn!”

At the presentation, dozens of people leaned into details about when, where, and how to start their fires. Trembath, a Bigfork resident who now has his own forestry and fire consulting business, deferred to Jeremy Pris, fire program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, for the latest regulations.

Flathead County has combined air quality and fire risk with its permit system. Now people get a permit for the year, which you can renew annually. No burning is allowed July through September, when the Flathead becomes a natural tinderbox.

Campfires don’t require a permit when limited to 4 feet high and 4 feet in diameter. “If you bring hot dogs and marshmallows, that helps Jeremy know it’s a recreational fire,” Trembath said.

Several times during the presentation audience members referenced unfriendly neighbors. In an age of “fake it until you make it” and breezy YouTube expertise, there is no substitute for hard-won experiential education that draws on multiple factors. Trembath cited some: fuel sources, moisture above and below, wind, weather history and forecast, and the site itself.

Maybe those unfriendly neighbors fear a conflagration, and a casserole and some preburn inquiries could pave the way for peace and property cleanup.

Pris recommends lighting a test pile, to get a feel for conditions. “Where we get into trouble is people who light a fire, then go inside for lunch,” he said, noting that a good burn takes all your attention. “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave. Test with the back of your hand to make sure no embers are left.”

Trembath recommended creating a dedicated site for burning so “you’re down to mineral soil and have no holdovers.” He mentioned a neighbor woman in her 80s who “always allows the fire to burn the grass around the fire — it ‘fireproofs’ the area.”

Trembath says not to use a dozer (they “mix in too much dirt and cause poor consumption”) and advises wearing nonsynthetic clothing that will accept sparks and to “stay away from the flammable liquids” for a starter. 

Afterward, a couple of property owners came to Pris to say how scared they were to burn. Trembath, however, had made a point about the wisdom of burning.

Trembath said that property managers who were questioned after a damaging wildfire often observed, “We should have thinned it out a lot more.”

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at