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Prescribed burns planned around the Tobacco Root and Ruby Mountains this spring could lead to smoke around towns in southwestern Montana starting this week, according to federal officials.

The Bureau of Land Management announced on Thursday that it plans to burn approximately 1,700 acres north of Virginia City in the southern Tobacco Root Mountains this spring. The agency is also scheduled to torch 5,000 acres 12 miles southwest of Virginia City near the Ruby Reservoir.

Pat Fosse, assistant field manager for the BLM Dillon Field Office, said work started on Thursday east of the Ruby Reservoir along the Greenhorn range. Workers planned to burn areas along Granite Creek north of Virginia City on Friday, she said.

Prescribed burns will continue through Sunday as long as the weather stays favorable. The Mill, Grante, Garden, Greenhorn, Jack, Idaho and Davey creeks flow through areas selected for burning.

Fosse said officials still need to wait for snow to melt at higher-elevation before burning them. Smaller trees that are still buried in snow at higher elevations could be missed.

“If we don’t burn those, we’re back to square one within five years,” she said.

People driving along U.S. Highway 287, State Highway 287 and County Route 248 should expect to see smoke while burning occurs. Smoke could also be visible in Ennis, Virginia City, Alder, Sheridan, Twin Bridges and Dillon.

The scheduled burns are needed to reduce conifers, which are expanding into sagebrush and grassland habitat, according to BLM.

The fires are also needed to restore aspen growth and improve biodiversity.

Burns will be timed based on weather and fuel conditions, officials wrote. They aim to reduce fuels close to the wildland urban interface.

Reducing fuels will aid firefighters when a wildfire does start — it’s far easier to extinguish wildfires after flames have reached areas where prescribed burns have been done, according to Fosse.

Early season burns are also much cooler and don’t kill native grasses, she said.

Spring prescribed burning seasons typically end in mid-May when vegetation greens. Fire managers from the BLM, Forest Service and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will monitor the burns, officials wrote.

Burns planned in Madison County this spring are happening as part of two Trump administration executive and secretarial orders addressing wildfires.

Executive Order 13855 and Secretary’s Order 3372 were issued in 2018 and 2019 to promote active forest management and reduce wildfire risk on federal land. The orders directed the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to reduce fuel loads, minimize wildfire risks and promote safety and practice active forest management.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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