Could a burn ban jeopardize a major Montana city's water supply? We tackled that question with Hannah Downey, policy director for the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).

She wrote a piece for the Frontier Institute here in Montana addressing a newly announced halt to prescribed burns by the Biden Administration's Forest Service.

I'd rather the loggers were able to go in and reduce the fuels in our forests, instead of having to burn the fuel. But when it comes to fighting fires here in the West, we need every tool in our toolbox. Why take away one of those tools - like prescribed burns?

Credit: Michael Bocchieri, Getty Images
Credit: Michael Bocchieri, Getty Images

Hannah Downey: Research has found that when we're able to do thinning and use our private timber industry to help do some of that harvest, when that harvest is done in conjunction with prescribed burns that's usually across many landscapes when we see the best sort of fuels reduction, wildfire risk reduction outcomes. However, there are the reality is, there are just areas where the terrain is too difficult or we have regulations or designations on those landscapes that prevent some of the active timber we do have to rely on prescribed burns as a tool that can be applied on those landscapes. So this ban does come as a really big hit, especially with...spring, early summer being a season in Montana, where you do have kind of the stars aligned to do one of these prescribed burns.

This ban on prescribed burns could also jeopardize the city of Bozeman's water supply. For years, officials have been working to protect the Bozeman water supply through the Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project. The fear is that if a major fire swept through, it would jeopardize the water supply. Fuels reduction and prescribed burns were finally being allowed, until this latest ban was put in place by the Biden Administration.

Hannah Downey: If that forest went up in flames, we've been told we'd have a water supply of about three days, which is a really scary thought. But so finally, now 15 years later, we're doing some work on the ground, or I should say the Forest Service and their partners are doing work...we were prepared this Spring to have crews go in and do some of this prescribed burning again, waiting for the stars to align, the conditions to be right, the personnel to be good on the ground, the weather window to open up, but now with this ban, the 90 day prescribed burn ban implemented by the Forest Service nationwide, those burns can't happen. And so now we're looking at having to push back that work probably another year.

Click below for the full audio:

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