By Jennifer Schoonen, Blackfoot Challenge Communications Manager

Piles of slash lay scattered across the recently thinned forest. A team of foresters walked from pile to pile, setting them ablaze with their drip torches. As the flames rose, a group of area landowners and partners began traipsing around, learning that the process of setting up and eliminating your forestry project slash piles may not be as simple as lighting your average campfire.

In late October, the Missoula Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Blackfoot Challenge coordinated this pile-burning workshop for Potomac-area landowners as an educational component of an NRCS funding opportunity to support private lands forest health projects in the area.  

The overall goals and objectives of the NRCS Potomac-area forestry “TIP” – or Targeted Implementation Plan (a process for providing landowners EQIP funding for specific resource priorities) — are to improve forest health and wildlife habitat, reduce wildfire hazard, and improve wildfire preparedness, while reducing insect and disease pressures on good quality trees growing within private forested acres.

Wildfires and declining health of forestlands are a growing concern amongst citizens of Missoula County. Tree stands within the NRCS’s Potomac Valley Focus Area have historically experienced frequent, low intensity wildfires. Decades of fire suppression have allowed densities of shade-tolerant tree species such as Douglas-fir to greatly increase. The high number of trees per acre has resulted in stress through competition for growing space, water, nutrients, and sunlight. The health and vigor of these forests substantially decrease when trees are stressed from overcrowding. Trees that are stressed grow slower and take longer to mature into a merchantable product. In addition, competitive stress and poor tree vigor provide opportunities for insects and disease to establish and spread. This disease and insect caused tree mortality adds to the fuel load and makes fire suppression activities more difficult.

Whether you own 10 or 100 forested acres, there are ways to enhance the health of the forest and reduce wildfire risk on your land. The more neighbors who work together, the better off all of our forests and communities will be. Through the Potomac area forest health TIP, the Montana NRCS and the Blackfoot Challenge are working together to provide technical advice and funding assistance for making private lands safer and more wildfire adapted.

Although the application period for participation this year has passed, the TIP forest health funding opportunity will continue for another couple of years.

For more information on the Potomac TIP (and others in the Blackfoot watershed), please visit the NRCS Montana website.

For more information on whether your forested lands would benefit from forest treatments – or for more resources on post-treatment pile burning, please contact Blackfoot Challenge Forestry and Prescribed Fire Coordinator Cindy Super at

In the meantime – if you have plans to burn slash or brush piles in the near future, here are a few tips shared during the recent workshop.

Before you burn …. make sure you have ready:

  • Reliable water source(s)
  • Good sturdy shovel
  • Heavy gloves & boots
  • Spotter (someone to watch for sparks)
  • Burn Permit / Number
  • Burn spot is chosen wisely


Burn Pile Safety

  • Build your debris piles in vegetation openings, away from overhead branches, wires, structures and other burnable materials.
  • Scrape debris and any other burnable material away from your piles, so material is surrounded by several feet of bare soil.
  • Once you ignite your debris, attend your fire continuously.
  • When you think your fire is out, check ashes for glowing embers. With a new burst of oxygen (generated by stirring ashes), even a few live coals will soon produce smoke. Make sure your fire is dead out!
  • Keep water and tools ready in case there are fire- or weather-related changes.
  • As the fire burns down, move branches and other debris from the outer ring into the center (don’t forget your gloves for this process!).
  • Always have sufficient help, tools and equipment to control the fire.


You can find more burn safety tips and burn permit applications (for Missoula County residents) at the Missoula County Fire Protection Association’s website.