Wildfires can be terrifying and tragic, but in the aftermath, life rises from the ashes

Story & Photography by Kay Bjork

It’s a hellish scene when wildfire races up a mountainside, its ravenous flames spiraling up treetops, explosions sounding off like fireworks and billowing smoke blackening the sky. Wildfire is terrifying, yet strangely beautiful, creating both light and darkness as it devours everything in its path and threatens human and animal life, evoking a natural supposition that fire equates to death. But on the other side is the rebirth: the beauty in the cycle of nature, ever recreating and redefining its next course of history. Amidst the charred remains, nature will renew itself.

From the sooty grave, brave little plants emerge — a reminder that life will literally rise from the ash. Fire releases soil nutrients locked in older vegetation and thins dense groves of trees, allowing new growth and remaining trees to thrive. There are even fire-adapted species that rely on fire for their seeds to sprout, such as the lodgepole pine, whose serotinous cones are sealed with resin, which, when melted by fire, will release seeds. Aspen, birch and willow trees damaged by fire can re-sprout from their roots. Fireweed seeds lie dormant in soil and litter and are released by a deep fire, blanketing a barren slope with their purple flowers soon after a fire. Mushroom hunters know to visit fire sites where the fungi can flourish. Huckleberry and other shrubs re-sprout, producing a more vigorous and fruitful plant. Fire can also help control pests and diseases in plant communities and kill noxious weeds.

The wildfire dance moves in unpredictable patterns and varying intensity, creating something known as a forest mosaic, which is a more diverse habitat where animals and birds of prey can hunt in open areas left by fire and find refuge in areas left unburned. Green succulent plants sprout in open areas created by a fire, providing deer and other animals with a gourmet salad bar. Trees and plants regenerate at different times, some flourishing in the sunlight and others such as fir and spruce dependent on shade from other trees to thrive. Wildfire also removes accumulated plants, leaves, branches and downfall that can provide fuels for a more catastrophic fire in the future.

It’s the beauty of the burn. Natural wildfire promotes biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. Humans continue to try to understand fire and figure out where and when to intervene in this powerful force of nature.

After a burn, fireweed carpets a blackened stand of lodgepoles in Glacier, putting color back into the forest. Kay Bjork.

To Burn or Not To Burn

Wildfire’s beauty-and-beast persona has created an emotional and controversial platform for wildfire discussions that seek to establish fire’s role in nature.

Early conservationists’ concerns about the impact of wildfires on natural resources were in part responsible for setting aside national forest lands, followed by the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service to manage these lands, including fire management.

After a series of devastating 1910 wildfires known as the Big Blowup and the Big Burn swept over Washington, Idaho and Montana, which burned more than 3 million acres of private and public land and killed at least 85 people in just two days, federal agencies established fire prevention and fire suppression policies for the future. Some argued in favor of naturally allowing backcountry fires to burn themselves out to reduce fuels. Others promoted a campaign to eradicate wildfire, which resulted in the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 and a policy of total fire suppression that lasted for decades. The Forest Service intensified fire suppression when it adopted a policy that fires were to be contained or controlled by 10 a.m. the next day after being reported (or if that failed, the next day at 10 a.m. and so on.)

The last frontier continued to fill with people, although there were communities still surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and forests. A new frontier was emerging along with new concerns for public safety and the surrounding natural world. “Keep It Green” campaigns in the 1940s promoted forest fire prevention. When World II caused a shortage of manpower to fight fires, a fire prevention campaign was launched, led by the endearing Smokey Bear icon and the “only YOU can prevent forest fires” slogan. The slogan was later revised to: “only you can prevent wildfire.”

With the growing number of large wildfires in the 1960s and 1970s, federal agencies changed their policies to include prescription fires to reduce fuels and to return the natural process of fire to the ecosystem, while implementing interagency collaborations for firefighting. Previously, natural fires occurred every 25-250 years depending on the type of forest, and many were low-intensity fires that removed woody shrubs and fuels on the ground. Fire exclusion allowed fuels to build in the forests, resulting in bigger fires. The 1988 Yellowstone Park fires that burned nearly 800,000 and over a third of the park further inspired changes in fire policies. In 2000, a National Fire Plan was adopted to treat 49 million acres by thinning trees and implementing prescribed burns.

Impacts of climate change, such as less snowfall, more hot days and earlier snowmelt, are also increasing the frequency and size of fires and lengthening the fire season. Wildfire reports, smoky skies and crimson sunsets seem to be an inevitable part of summer. In 2017, Montana’s largest fire season since 1910 occurred with 1.4 million acres burned.

In addition to fire prevention and suppression efforts, post-fire measures are also taken, such as tree planting, seeding of plants, treating bug infestation in dead or weakened trees and logging dead trees when still merchantable to prevent the dead debris from providing future fuels for a potentially catastrophic fire in areas near private property. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Interior issued a directive that “encourages aggressive fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques to prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfire.”

Since Glacier National Park’s founding in 1910, wildfire has occurred every year except 1964, with the most fires occurring in 1936 when 64 fires burned in the park. The most significant fire season was in 2003 when 136,000 acres burned, which was approximately 13 percent of the park’s area. More recently, 17,000 acres burned in 2017, gutting the historic Sperry Chalet and leaving behind a stone skeleton. In 2018, the Howe Ridge fire swept across an area at the head of Lake McDonald and destroyed 13 residences and 14 minor structures while burning over 14,000 acres.

Glacier Park has managed fires since 1994, allowing those to burn that offer the most resource benefits with the least amount of risk. Parameters are set but can be reset according to conditions and fire behavior.

Take note of the effects of fire as you travel through Glacier. Up the North Fork and in Polebridge, you can still see snags standing like flagless poles in new stands of trees 31 years after the Red Bench Fire. It’s easy to spot fire patterns left by the 2001 and monumental 2003 fires when you travel the Camas Road. Look for evidence of the 2006 Red Eagle Fire or the 2015 Reynolds Fire on the east side of the park. The stark effects of recent blazes are obvious in the 2017 Sprague Fire and the 2018 Howe Fire along the northwest side of Lake McDonald.

You can observe the aftermath of fire in many of the area’s popular recreational and hiking areas, where there are often improved views of magnificent mountain ranges and a medley of wildflowers coloring open slopes. Rock outcrops emerge, accented by sculpture-like silvery snags that provide a home to birds, and new ground cover appears with the benefit of more sunlight. Patches of wildflowers hug up against blackened trees, and birds sing a happy song as if to say, “Life goes on and there truly is beauty to the burn.”

Silvery snags stand like monuments to the Blackfoot Fire Complex. Kay Bjork.

Fire Facts

Based on Wildland Fire Management Information (WFMI) and Forest Service Research Data Archive from 2000-2017 data, nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S. are human-caused by campfires left unattended, debris burning, equipment use and malfunctions, cigarettes and arson. The U.S. Department of Interior puts the figure as high as 90 percent.

The Insurance Information Institute rated Montana the 10th most wildfire-prone state in 2017. In 2018, nearly 100,000 acres of Montana burned in 1,344 different fires.

The fire triangle, or the combustion triangle, explains the three elements required to ignite a fire: heat, fuel and oxygen. When one of the elements is removed, the fire is extinguished.

When fire is absent, seeds can lie dormant in the soil for decades.

It takes at least 80 years to grow big trees.

The Keep Montana Green Association, founded in the 1945, is still active in preventing wildfire through public education and media programs.

FireSafe Montana is a nonprofit organization that coordinates and supports a statewide partnership to help make Montana homes, neighborhoods and communities fire-safe. Visit the website at www.firesafemt.org.

An active fire map with larger fire incidents can be found at this website: https://fsapps.nwcg.gov/afm/index.php.