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Analysis shows catastrophic fire could break out

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| July 7, 2009 12:00 AM

The potential for a catastrophic fire overtaking populated areas in and around Libby is real. And community forester Ed Levert is trying hard to get the message across.

Levert, a retired forester who has been vocal in efforts to reduce the fire risk for people living in wildland-urban interface areas, took Lincoln County commissioners through a computer analysis of what could happen.

“The goal of doing this was to make the county, city and other agencies aware of the potential that Libby has for a catastrophic fire to come in,” Levert said. “Everybody knows about the Parmenter Fire last year … talk about dodging the bullet. In my estimation, that was a really close call.”

A program developed by Sonny Stiger and Rocky Infanger illustrates how a wildland fire can progress under different types of conditions. On Aug. 18 of last year, conditions at the Libby Ranger District station were recorded between noon and 7 p.m. – temperature, humidity and 10-hour fuel moisture levels.

The fictional fire in the program begins in the Flower Creek area at noon with the temperature at 83 degrees, humidity at 26 percent and fuel moisture at 10 percent with southwest winds at 20 mph. The blaze started on a 30-percent side slope in dense timber with abundant ladder fuels.

Levert then took commissioners through the fire’s progression over the coming hours.

“The initial attack ground crew should reach the fire’s origin within 45 minutes,” Levert said. “Firefighting crews might have some success in flanking the fire near the origin. However, under these conditions, fire suppression efforts on the head of the fire would be ineffective and unsafe.”

By 2 p.m., the program had the fire estimated at 247 acres and by 3 p.m. at 635 acres. On Aug. 8 last year, temperatures were hot, reaching 107 degrees by 4 p.m. Levert mentioned how various agencies might respond, including evacuation plans that would likely be initiated by the sheriff’s office.

Five hours into the fire, the computer model had the blaze estimated at 1,556 acres with spot fires becoming a real problem and embers falling all over town.

“This is what scares the heck out of me; how many people that live in the vicinity of that fire,” Levert said.

At six hours, the fictional fire is at 2,164 acres.

“House fires would be spreading from house to house,” Levert said. “That’s a real scary thing with a limited amount of water and number of engines available. There’s no reason why that can’t happen here the same way.”

Several other factors come into play, such as the functionality of the city’s water system.

The program, which included dramatic photos of wildfire, will next be shared with Libby City Council at a meeting this month.

Levert urged both the county and city to join forces to make Libby a “firewise” community. In such a scenario, a local firewise board would be organized and meet periodically to look at all issues involved. In response, the county voted to create a letter asking the city to become partners in the effort.

Levert said an opportunity exists to use stimulus package money to treat county and city properties.

“We want to encourage the city to participate with the county in a partnership to establish a firewise community – not just in the city limits but in the area around that would involve city and county property,” commissioner Marianne Roose said.

In addition, commissioners voted to draft a letter to the U.S. Forest Service in support of the Flower Creek Project – an effort that has been accepted by the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition.

The Flower Creek Project involves fuel and vegetation management through commercial harvesting and pre-commercial thinning and fuel grinding, along with temporary road construction and trail construction.

The draft environmental impact statement is expected by December with the final EIS anticipated for March 2010.

What is Firewise?

The national Firewise Communities program is a multi-agency effort designed to reach beyond fire departments by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers and others in the effort to protect people, property and natural resources from the risk of wildland fire – before a fire starts.

The Firewise Communities approach emphasizes community responsibility for planning in the design of a safe community as well as effective emergency response, and individual responsibility for safer home construction and design, landscaping and maintenance.

The national Firewise Communities program is intended to serve as a resource for agencies, tribes, organizations, fire departments and communities across the country who are working toward a common goal – reduce loss of lives, property and resources to wildland fire by building and maintaining communities in a way that is compatible with natural surroundings.