HUSON, Mont. — The early morning temperature has already reached the 80s, as our six-person Forest Service silviculture crew starts up a steep ridge, our tools stuffed into the pockets of our orange vests. We carry clinometers for measuring the steepness of the slopes, compasses and maps for finding our way, and logger’s tapes for measuring study plots on the forest floor. Our goal: to gauge how well these woods are recovering from fires that burned through here in 2000.
That summer was the biggest fire season on record in the West, as 5
million acres of real estate burned across the region. Here on the
Ninemile Ranger District on the Lolo National Forest in western
Montana, 20,000 acres burned.
As local residents became
skittish, politicians condemned wildfires as if they were the moral
equivalent of terrorism. It’s no secret that the federal
government’s 75-year-old policy of strict fire suppression
has made some forests more prone to burn hot. But politicians soon
equated "some" with "all." President Bush urged Congress to ease
environmental restrictions so loggers could get into the woods to
thin flammable forests.
Beyond descriptions of awesome
flames and torched homes, journalists seldom reported what fire
actually accomplished in the forests — or what would happen
come springtime. Some even used the word "destroyed" to describe
the effects of the fire, but they couldn’t have been more
On aerial photographs taken after the
fires, the boss marked off individual stands with a green felt-tip
pen, using ridges and gullies as boundaries. Now, he wants to know
whether or not he needs to send crews in to plant seedlings by hand
next year. Today, with a few grunts and groans, we hike up to the
highest stands, once dominated by lodgepole pines.
string out toward a dry creekbed, and I pick a random spot to put
in a study plot. I stop and push the nail at the end of my
logger’s tape into a half-burned log, then I look through the
clinometer to determine the steepness of the slope. Using the slope
angle, I determine the radius for a plot of one-hundredth of an
acre, measure it out and start counting seedlings.
eight-inch tall lodgepole and western larch, with a few grand fir,
alpine fir and Douglas-fir, sprout from the gray ash as thickly as
the daffodils and tulips in my neighbor’s garden. I begin
counting by tens. Halfway through my circle, I give up and multiply
by two. Six hundred seedlings in this plot. That equates to 60,000
in the surrounding acre. No need to plant trees here.
About 90 percent of the 12,000 acres we canvass over the course of
the summer have reseeded naturally and need no help from us. As if
the trees sensed the impending doom of 2000, they had produced a
good cone crop. Many moisture-filled cones survived the
quick-running crown fire, opened that fall and dropped their seeds
to the ground. Many of the dead trees here are lodgepoles, which
produce "serotinous" cones that only open after the heat of a fire
melts the heavy pitch that holds the seeds inside.
seedlings are thriving in the ash, which is rich in nutrients. With
fall and spring rains, plus melting snow, the nutrients seep into
the mineral soil — the layer of dirt beneath the decaying
duff on the forest floor — for what one ecologist described
as "a gourmet city." A year or two from now, most of the ash will
have disappeared, and this place will be well on its way to
becoming a forest again.
I’ve come to
realize that fire is more than a destructive force. It modifies a
forest community, allowing certain types of plants to regain a lost
place in the forest.
Some plants — like twinflower,
kinnikinnik, and prince’s pine — perished here in the
2000 burns, but others have rushed in. As we hike through the
burned forest, I drink in slopes covered with golden arnica, white
spirea, straw-colored pine grass. Where the fire didn’t burn
severely, four-foot high, white-flowered stalks of beargrass wave
like giant bottle cleaners in the breeze. Fireweed cheers up the
blackened landscape with purple-pink blossoms, and in spots,
lavender lupine stands thick as grass.
The lupine, aster
and arnica survive because their root crowns, or rhizomes, reach
deep into the mineral soil, which protects them from the
fire’s heat. Other plants, like fireweed and pearly
everlasting, drift in on feathery seeds from unburned sites.
Lupine and other legumes, as well as shrubs such as alder
and snowbrush, all contribute to the rapid recovery process by
fixing nitrogen in the soil. Mycorrhizae, a type of soil fungus,
works with the plants through their roots to take up nutrients from
Near the lower boundary of our unit, I stop
to crinkle a leaf of snowbrush and breathe in the menthol
fragrance. Before the fires of 2000, you couldn’t find a
single snowbrush shrub, named for its masses of small white
flowers, on this slope. Now, it is sprouting everywhere. It will
thrive for a few years until other shrubs and trees shade it out.
Then it will drop its seeds, which will lie in the soil, waiting
for the next fire.
During the 1990s, I dug fire line here
at Nine Mile. In 1995, when I first covered wildfires for the
national press, I fell into the trap of sensationalism, describing
fire as a wicked villain. Now I know the truth. It is sometimes
fire’s job to kill stands of mature trees that are often
diseased. But at the same time, it transforms and rejuvenates the
landscape, and allows the forest to recreate itself.