Flaming Forests, Burning Questions – Forest Fires by Jack Ballard
Forest fires in the Rocky Mountains are once again in the news. The fire season started early this year, thanks to excessively dry conditions over much of the region. To put things in perspective, Billings, Montana, had the driest June on record. At this writing, this community in the south-central portion of the state had received but one-half its normal precipitation for the year to date. How much is that? Normal years would see a little over 8 inches, this year’s count has been slightly over 4 inches.
Not surprisingly, a large fire has broken out in the hills north of town. Covered in ponderosa pines and prickled with junipers, the Bull Mountains are an idyllic spot for a home in years of abundant moisture. But in dry seasons, the dense stands of pines, many inhabited by tightly packed young trees, are inevitable infernos.
The situation in the Bull Mountains is duplicated over millions of acres in the West. Over a century of fire suppression has left many of our forest with unhealthy numbers of trees. Unbroken landscapes of countless evergreens are pretty to the eye, perhaps, but often tend toward monocultures, ecosystems dominated by one species of flora, or at best, a few species.
Then they burn. In most cases, an inordinate amount of fire-fighting resources is directed toward protecting homes and other human structures. Which raises a question: To what extent should we be building in such fire-prone environments in the first places? Another issue of economics also arises. Where we’ve already erected dwellings in areas of high fire risk, does it make more sense to invest a few million dollars in tree thinning and fuel reduction instead of spending tens of millions of dollars fighting fires? When conditions are ideal for controlled burns, should people take up nature’s mantle and burn a few hundred acres here and there in hopes of discouraging subsequent fires that may clear thousands?
Last evening I fished a small creek in a drainage seared by a massive fire a few years ago. There are a few campgrounds in the area. An acquaintance recently told me she wouldn’t camp there because it’s ugly.
I caught Brook Trout in the stream and encountered numerous cloven hoof prints of Moose and Mule Deer. Fireweed and other forbs are abundant beneath towering blackened trunks of dead evergreens. Aspen shoots are sprouting on the hillsides. There’s more to eat here than in the pre-fire days for the likes of Downy Woodpeckers, Black Bears and Elk.
I don’t profess to have the answers to the big social questions regarding wildfires. But I do know one thing. The idea that all forest fires are ugly depends on who is looking.