Living in the Woods: A Privilege and a Responsibility

I am lucky enough to live in the foothills of the beautiful Bitterroot Mountains. It’s a privileged position–and like most privileges, it comes with responsibilities. I firmly believe one of those responsibilities is to make our property as ‘firewise’ as possible. I use the term ‘firewise’ because there is no way to make a forested property truly fire safe. Especially since the safety of my property relies on my neighbors to do their part. It also requires a lot of luck–a fast, super-hot fire is pretty difficult to survive.

But, there are things that can be done, and some aren’t hard or expensive. Some are. When we were house shopping, one of the things that made this property attractive was that it had already been properly thinned. The trees are well spaced out, and most have been delimbed up to at least the recommended ten-foot height.

We choose to not have a lawn, but when the grass (and weeds, darn knapweed!) get high, I wack them down around the house and rake up the remains. One of the things I’ve been meaning to change since we bought is the so-called ‘beauty bark’ on the west side of the house. Why is beauty bark bad? (Try saying that three times fast!) Because it’s not usually the forest fire that gets you, it’s the ember shower ahead of the forest fire.

Any ‘woody debris’ around your house is bad. If beauty bark is wet, it’s not so bad. In western Montana, it dries up, and if a spark gets in there, it’s really difficult to get out. This spring, I decided it was time to take this project on. First, I removed all the bark. It was a major undertaking because it was six inches thick and wet. And I dug it all out by hand and hauled it away by wheelbarrow. The Canadian Chokecherries we planted a couple of years ago really appreciated the new mulch.

I also pulled out all the old plastic, put down new weed barrier and plastic, then tried to figure out what to put in there. I went with rock–washed Missoula rock, specifically. It’s not the cheapest option, but it’s pretty, non-flammable and it’s clean. I calculated how much I needed, but I ended up ordering a bigger truck–about 15 yards.

I way overbought. I put the rock under the front porch, half the back deck, filled in the west side and still had tons (literally) left over. So, I decided to just keep going. I’ve done the north side of the house and plan to continue all the way around the house and then the garage. You’ll see that I did leave the plants on the west side. They’re healthy and the dead branches have been trimmed away. But, if a wildfire threatens us, I’ll chop them down without hesitation.

Now, having done all this–all by hand, by the way–are we safer? Yes and no. Sure, we’re safer because we’ve reduced the amount of ember-catching woody debris next to the house. But it’s a minor improvement. We still have plenty of other improvements to make that will increase our chances of survival. Improvements and maintenance never stop when you live in the woods.

But in the end, anything we do probably won’t matter all that much. Why? Because many of our neighbors–specifically, our neighbors uphill from us–haven’t done any work on their property. The Forest Service did a large thinning project on their property at the top of the mountain–it looks great now–but only a few of the property owners below them have done anything.

I’ve heard all the excuses, and they’re all, in the end, lousy. “I don’t want to see my neighbors/the road/anything but trees,” “It costs too much money,” “It takes too much time,” “It looks ugly” and so on. Our mountain WILL burn someday. Your property will be nothing but black stumps. Unfortunately, ours probably will be too. I talked to many homeowners after the Roaring Lion fire–it destroyed 18 homes–and many of them had thinned their property. But the uphill neighbors didn’t.

Homes were lost. Would they have been lost anyway? Maybe. It was a very, very hot fire. One homeowner described seeing a ‘tsunami of fire’ and it’s pretty hard to survive that. But we’ll never know.

What we will see is the results of the Lolo Peak Fire, just a little farther north, with the same sort of forest and terrain. If you look back a couple of posts on this blog, you’ll see Matt and I hiked up there earlier this year. One of my first comments to Matt on our way up? “When this area burns it’s going to be really bad.” There was way too much down, dead wood lying stacked on the forest floor, and the trees were packed in together. I was far more prophetic than I ever dreamed.

However, the Forest Service did some clearing in the areas closer to homes and many homeowners did too. So far–knock on living wood–only two homes have been lost. It will be interesting to read the reports and studies that will come out after the fire.

In the end, the question for everyone privileged enough to live in the woods: Are you willing to take the responsibilities too? Or, when the fire comes, are you going to blame everyone else for your failure? I hope you can live with the answers to those questions.

UPDATE August 2022

Front of house with healthier plantsThe plants love the rockbed! Evidently, they were drowning before. They’re a good three times larger than they were.

The ASM finished spreading the rocks, and we have a 3 to 6 foot rock break all around our house.

There are two downsides. One, since the plants are larger, they’ll be harder to take out if a wildfire comes near. Two, pine straw isn’t the easiest thing to get out of these rocks. Still, our house is safer and the plants are thriving. It was a great investment of time and money!