Seen Fire and Rain — Sevenmile Creek Restoration Survives and Heads Toward Completion

Despite a scary run-in with wildfire, PPLT’s Sevenmile project continues on to the final stages of restoration—we’re building a resilient landscape together. Excerpt from fall 2020 newsletter.

September 2nd was another hot, windy day in the Helena Valley. When a fire sparked near where Birdseye Road crosses the railroad tracks, it took little time before some 800 acres were consumed. “It was extreme fire behavior,” according to Chris Spliethof, incident commander with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

At the heart of the inferno was Sevenmile Creek, site of an ongoing stream restoration project spearheaded by Prickly Pear Land Trust. From a distance, it appeared that the 2.2-mile stretch of creek and its surrounding 350 acres were charred beyond hope.

But just a month afterwards, the devastation appears not so devastating. The restoration project’s largest wetland, which covers about an acre and a half, was spared. “The fire left it untouched,” Jeff Ryan, district supervisor of the Lewis & Clark Conservation District, said during an October tour. “Wetlands are resilient. Fire could even stimulate growth.”

Many willows, painstakingly transplanted in recent years to provide habitat (147 species of birds had been identified on the site) and mitigate erosion, may have survived. The fire could “firm up that (willow) root mass,” Jeff added. “Mark my words, they’re going to come up from the roots.” Jeff continued a discussion about another round of willow transplanting with PPLT tour host, Nate Kopp.

Fencing — some five miles of it — took a beating as did gates. Likely by next year, the fencing will be replaced by a four-strand barbed wire at a height that’s more wildlife-friendly. One upside is that work on the final segment of restoration was able to continue. The burn allowed the contractors to do the work, when just weeks earlier, they had been concerned about starting a fire.

The work is expected to be completed by the end of November. It entails creating a new channel and plugging the former channel, with the dirt coming from the excavation of the wetlands area. The final phase, with a cost of $300,000, is being funded by Northwestern Energy, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation 223 grant, the Willow Springs Foundation and a variety of private and individual donations. This will complete the restoration that began in 2016.