It’s August, and that means there are fires in the West.
Pardon me if that sounds somewhat nonchalant, but we have learned so much about fire ecology, especially with the 1988 Yellowstone fires being discussed. It’s hard to believe it has been 25 years since 793,000 acres burned inside the park. I won’t say what I was doing then, but I was barely out of diapers.
Now that I have graduated to big girl pants, I know that fire is a natural part of a larger cycle and is actually necessary for a healthy forest to exist.
Let’s back up a few decades. For many years, the idea was that all fires were to be prevented or extinguished as quickly as possible. Remember Smokey Bear who used to say “Only YOU can prevent forest fires?”
The result was that tremendous resources went into putting out the fires as quickly and efficiently as possible. The unintended consequence of this policy was that the forests were getting older and the amount of fuel was increasing.
When that long, hot summer of 1988 arrived there was plenty of fuel in and around the park. The fires that started were the result of both natural lightning strikes and man-made actions such as the simple toss of a cigarette.
Once the fires got going, there was no extinguishing them, and the emphasis shifted to protecting homes and other buildings. When the fire arrived at Old Faithful Village September 7, resources were concentrated on saving historic buildings, especially the Old Faithful Inn.
It was not until the temperatures dropped and snow began to fall that the fires were truly under control that year.
After everyone had a chance to take stock of the situation, a new policy came into focus. Instead of viewing the forests as being devastated, we began to understand that they were simply being regenerated and that it was only going to happen with fire.
You see, most of the trees around here are lodgepole pines. These trees grow in very dense groups, and the tallest and strongest trees survive, leaving plenty of less fortunate trees to die and create that fuel I keep mentioning.
At the same time, lodgepole seeds are contained inside cones that are covered with a resin. The cones do not open easily unless heat comes into play. Since it does not get that hot at our higher elevations, the only way to clean out the dead trees and the old trees while spreading those millions of seeds inside the cones is through fire.
Whenever I hike through a burn area today, I do not see a forest that was destroyed. Instead, I see a young healthy forest that will continue to grow for decades – centuries even – until one day it is old and unhealthy and in need of clearing and replanting. And the cycle will start all over.
As a nature lover I find this whole process fascinating. I don’t like to see trees go up in flames, but I now have a better understanding of how necessary and normal it is.
Thanks for letting me bend your ear.
Until next week, I am lovin’ life in Cody, Wyo.