Standing yards above the makeshift range where a person shooting exploding targets sparked a wildfire last month, Tri-Lakes Fire Chief Bob Drake grabbed the top of one of the 3 ½-foot tall Ponderosa pine saplings populating the area that he said presented a huge problem when trying to fight the fire.
“It was a really difficult initial attack,” Drake said. “ … (Firefighters were) doing everything they can, and this is what they’re dealing with and they can’t even get through that. You can’t stop it in this. I don’t care what you’ve got.”
The North Hills fire grew to nearly 8 square miles within days and caused the evacuation of 500 homes before fire crews were able to get it under control. Many factors contributed to its rapid growth, including a rough road to access the blaze, and winds that didn’t cooperate.
But Wednesday during a tour of the burned area with Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Drake focused on one element he says was controllable and he wants to see addressed: an abundance of fuels in the area that gave the fire plenty of material to grow.
“The thicker the fuel, it’s happy. And it was happy,” Drake said. The landscape in the hills north of Helena is filled with pine needles covering the ground, as well as brush, downed dead trees, standing Ponderosa and regrowth trees ranging from about 1-8 feet.