Some think tree removal saved homes from Corral fire

2012-06-29T08:32:00Z 2012-06-29T23:47:25Z Some think tree removal saved homes from Corral fireBy EVE BYRON Independent Record The Billings Gazette
June 29, 2012 8:32 am  • 

SCRATCHGRAVEL HILLS — A few years ago, dead ponderosa pines covered the mountainsides of Scratchgravel Hills because of the mountain pine beetle epidemic that raced through the area.

Worried that the dead pines might provide fuel for a wildfire, some residents turned to various entities to remove the towering trees from their property.

That action just might have helped keep their land from significant damage from the Corral fire, which has burned 1,850 acres in the Scratchgravel Hills since Monday.

Katy and Joe Norris were allowed back to their home on Corral Road — which the fire was named after — and were amazed at how close the flames came to their property. They had partnered with their neighbors, Guus Schippers and Yvonne Vermeesch, to request grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the money paid for the removal of more than 700 trees.

“We took out about 100 trees, and Guus took out 600,” Katy Norris said as she surveyed her property on Thursday. “The BLM came in and did fire protection in January and February; we finished in March.”

She points to land blackened by the Corral fire, which included some of the 300 acres where the Bureau of Land Management had removed dead pines adjacent to her property.

“It was smoking right there, 50 feet off our property boundary where there used to be tons of dead trees,” Katy Norris said. “If we and the BLM had not done this project, I am not sure we would have been so lucky. It was so close. We just got lucky with the wind.”

Those families live northwest of where the fire originated on Sharptail Road. Heidi Wampler lives northeast of Sharptail Road, and also had dead trees removed from her family’s property up Treasure Canyon.

“Two days in a row, the fire surrounded our house,” Wampler recalled. “It was in front and beside our house with the wind blowing directly at us.

“But we did two (dead tree removal) projects and also limbed up our trees and keep the long grasses mowed, trying to make a fire break for our property.”

Jerry Shepherd, the West Valley fire chief, said firefighters appreciate the efforts of the homeowners, and the removal of dead trees helped the fire burn less intensely. He added that the effort that the Wamplers and others made to provide defensible space quite possibly helped save their homes.

“I don’t know if it changed the fire side of it, but it sure made a difference with the heat,” said Shepherd, who was one of the incident commanders.

“You can see that where they did mitigation work, it didn’t get as hot because there was not as much stuff to burn. It burned right up to the Wamplers.’ ”

John Grassy, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said they noticed when touring the burned area on Thursday that it wasn’t anything like the Cave Gulch fire of 2000, where the fire burned so hot that it sterilized the ground, turning the dirt and duff into a white powder where little vegetation could grow.

“Going through the areas that burned, you could definitely see the difference,” Grassy said. “The destructive power of the fire gets reduced a lot, and it usually just ends up creeping along on the ground in those places.”

Ironically, it was an area homeowner who was creating that defensible space who started the Corral fire.

The unidentified man had some dead trees removed and was burning tree limbs on Saturday. He thought the slash pile fire was out, but winds fanned it to life on Monday.

“He was trying to clean up the neighborhood, trying to make his area safer,” Shepherd said. “He was trying to do the right thing.”

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