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 wrong.
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.
We 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.
Six- to 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.
Now, 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 charred wood.
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.
Mark Matthews is a freelance writer and sometime firefighter in Missoula, Montana.