Big Sky enters its 80th year since last major wildfire

By Taylor Anderson

Patrick and Jeanne Miller live on a small plot of land
at the base of a subdivided hill called Summit View
Estates.
It’s a Saturday, and he sits in the shade of his back
porch overlooking Lone Mountain as the sun rises
overhead.
Miller is the president of the Summit View Owner’s
Association, made up of the 38 property owners in
the area that upkeep the land.
Part of the management includes collective snow
removal for all residents, general upkeep, and, as
waves of trees die either naturally or at the hands of
bug infestations, actively managing the forests.
The process is called forest stewardship, and is increasingly
important as Big Sky enters its 80th year
since the last wildfire scorched the area’s forests.
Crystal Hagerman and the Big Sky Natural Resource
Council this summer released an extensive, 188-
page report funded by Merrill Lynch on how residents
can manage their property to keep healthier
forests.
Big Sky exists in what is known as a wildland-urban
interface – ongoing human development in the middle
of wild areas – the report says, and it is the duty
of developers to keep existing resources healthy.
Big Sky’s 61,897 acres of forests are riddled with
beetle- and spruce budworm-killed pine and spruce
trees. The report said that four percent of all the
trees in Big Sky are dead, and would act as fuel in
the event of a fire.
Residents with dead or downed trees on their land
are encouraged to deal with them. They can also delimb
the first four feet of tree to reduce fuel during
potential grass fires.
That Big Sky is due for a high-intensity blaze is “a
standard assumption,” Hagerman said. “The fires do
come in cycles and the Big Sky area hasn’t” had one
in 80 years.
The area saw unusually high precipitation last
winter due to weather associated with the La Niña
system coming off the Pacific Ocean, which helped
during the early fire season.
“But it did help grow grasses and vegetation as
well,” Hagerman warned. “Now that those are
cured we have a lot of tall grasses and flashy fuels.”
Hagerman, through the Gallatin County Extension
and Resource Conservation and Development Area,
works with residents like the Millers by allocating
up to 50 percent of the cost to manage forestlands,
which includes hiring contractors to do the work.
Big Sky’s history is one filled with extensive logging
by companies like Plum Creek. Due to the high-elevation
climate and low precipitation in the summer
months, tree growth is slow, and 61 percent of the
trees here are less than an inch in diameter.
“The fact that we have a lot of young trees gives a
good chance to actively manage them now,” Hagerman
said.
Stewardship like that done by the Millers keeps
trees, which need room to grow, a chance at staying
healthy from early on in their life cycles.
Patrick sat pointing at the skinny trees on his property
and showing the difference between a healthy
stand of trees versus a cluttered, unhealthy one.
“You couldn’t see the road a week ago,” he said of
his thin strip of trees, perhaps 3 inches in diameter
each.
People like the privacy provided by thick areas of
trees that act like natural fencing, which is an issue
preventing some from managing their property.
But, the report says, it is important to create a buffer
zone between fire fuels and houses to give firefighters
a chance at saving lives and property.
“I’m not making fire assumptions,” Hagerman said,
“but the fire months are August into September
until we get cooler temperatures and snow.”
The Big Sky Natural Resource Council is holding its
annual August meeting on Monday, Aug. 29 at the
Big Sky Community Corporation office. You can find
more information and read the stewardship plan and
forest initiative reports at bigskynrc.org.