HAMILTON, Mont. - Wildland fire season always brings with it the possible threat of evacuation and burned property.
In the Bitterroot, scars from the fires of 2000 are visible reminders of the inferno that took more than 300,000 acres of forest land in the Bitterroot alone.
That fire displaced hundreds, and took dozens of houses and outbuildings too.
The Bitteroot Resource Conservation and Development Area has been working with landowners who qualify for a 50-50 cost share program, to have their property evaluated, and to help them reduce fire risk by thinning trees and shrubs.
Bitterroot RC and D community forester Byron Bonney showed NBC Montana the woods near Blodgett Canyon, west of Hamilton.
The forester says fire is driven by "fuel, topography and weather." Fuel is the only factor we can try to control, said Bonney.
He pointed out a stand of Ponderosa Pine trees on private land that has been thinned. The area is neat and park-like.
We're reducing the fuels here, said Bonney, "by pruning, reducing the ladder fuels on the trunk of the trees, so a fire doesn't crawl up the tree."
A private contracting crew was piling brush, which may be burned or chipped.
Cathy Palin trimmed limbs to reduce fuel.
She said if a fire were to come through here, the damage would be less extensive.
"It would just blow through," said Palin. "It wouldn't climb the trees. There's no ladder fuels, and we have spacing at the top so it can't carry a crown fire."
A crown fire advances with great speed, jumping from the top of one tree to another. That's what happened in 2000.
Homeowner Tom Anderson works with Bitterroot RC and D, and has been thinning his trees for years.
He says after opening this forest up, the changes have been "amazing."
He said, "The trees that are here are much healthier, the sun can get in and the natural grasses and wildflowers just exploded."
"It's designed not only to reduce fire risk," said Bonney, "but also to improve the health of the forest."
"A forest fire can affect many, many areas," said Bitterroot RC and D administrator Pam Gouse, "even beyond its own boundaries."
The agency has treated 1,100 landowners' properties since 2000. That's about 8,000 acres.
Bitterroot RC and D serves Ravalli and Mineral Counties, as well as parts of Missoula County.