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Moonlight Basin, Big Sky Fire Department partner on Jack Creek Road project

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An excavator transforms a tall tree into mulch. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Grant-funded work intends to improve safety in case of evacuation

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – The Big Sky Fire Department and Moonlight Basin are working together to improve safety and increase wildfire preparedness on one of Big Sky’s two emergency evacuation exits.

Currently underway, the Jack Creek Evacuation Road Project will thin out and mulch the forest on either side of the road to reduce fuels that could feed a fire along Jack Creek Road. This is intended to reduce the risk of wildfire and ensure the safety of citizens and emergency personnel in the event of an evacuation. Jack Creek Road connects Big Sky to the Madison Valley. Next to the eastbound Montana Highway 64, Jack Creek Road, owned by Moonlight Basin, is the only other emergency exit out of Big Sky.

The Big Sky community has identified evacuation as a top priority for several years now as the area becomes busier and the potential for congestion increases. Though private and gated, Jack Creek Road would be opened to the public in the event of an evacuation, according to Rich Chandler, director of environmental operations for Lone Mountain Land Company, which owns Moonlight.

A swath of land bordering Jack Creek Road that has been treated. Trees are cut down and turned into mulch, reducing fuels that could burn. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

“[The project] helps with evacuation, it helps with firefighting, it helps on every level when you think about a wildland fire,” said BSFD Chief Greg Megaard.

The project is funded in part by a $75,000 grant awarded to BSFD from Coalitions and Collaboratives Inc., a national nonprofit that offers grants to help communities better prepare for wildfire and reduce risk. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Madison Ranger District and the Madison County Office of Emergency Management each provided letters of support for the grant application. Moonlight Basin has spent over $250,000 on the Jack Creek project as well as on similar fuels reduction work on South Side Road adjacent to and south of Jack Creek Road.

“In the event of emergency access or egress-ingress for the community, this road is going to be critical,” Chandler said. “Moonlight Basin will open up its gates and allow the folks on the Madison side to come up to assist in any fire response and vice versa if the community of Big Sky needs to be evacuated out.”

This map shows South Side Road and Jack Creek Road highlighted in yellow. MAP COURTESY OF LONE MOUNTAIN LAND COMPANY

Work on the project began in June with crews clearing 100 feet of forest on the uphill and downhill sides of the road as a way of reducing fuels and therefore risk of wildfire. Chandler said the goal with this reduction of fuels, or shaded fuel break, is to manage fire behavior by forcing it down to the ground where firefighters are better able to control the fire.

Not only will this work reduce fuels and increase wildfire preparedness, Chandler said, but it will also improve forest health in the treated areas. 

“By selectively removing certain timber and in retaining others, both in species and age diversity, you promote a more healthy and resilient forest,” he said. 

Chandler said Moonlight’s work on South Side Road is already 70 percent complete. In total, Moonlight will treat about 130 total acres along both Jack Creek Road and South Side Road.

The goal is to finish the work on the roads this fall, according to Chandler. 

In other efforts to improve Big Sky’s evacuation procedures, Megaard said the fire department is working with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office on an early notification system.

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