Fire crackles and pops in our living room wood stove. I’m cozying up on this fall morning to write, grateful for the warmth. Our black labs curl up close by. It’s hard to believe that a few weeks ago, the air purifier hummed inside, while outside thick smoke from wildfires blocked the sun, misted views, and choked our lungs. Now, after the smoke clears and our hearth fires create such delicious warmth, I’m exploring the love-hate relationship we have with fire in the West.
Who doesn’t love a campfire on a dark cool night, as spark trails link us to the stars? Yet, love can turn to hatred, sorrow, and fear when it comes to wildfires, especially after this fury of a season we experienced here in Oregon, and in my prior home of Montana.
Last winter’s big snows in Oregon drenched our rivers and lands with life-giving moisture. The summer bunchgrasses thrived and brilliant wildflowers infused our senses with nature’s elixir. We gasped at their surface beauty, while often missing the inner miraculous abilities of western native plants to adapt to fire. Then, the plants dried out in the excessive heat. Green needles, too, lost their moisture. We had the right conditions for the perfect storm, aided by day after day of unrelenting high temperatures. Yes, climate change is real.
As fall rains and cool temperatures signal an end to fire season, the politics are igniting. I’m getting seriously alarmed by the cries for accelerated logging of both burned and unburned forests and suspending environmental laws. I have an inkling what’s behind at least part of the mania. People tend to want a scapegoat, an easy solution, and we want it right away.
So, take a big breath. Step back. Cool down. I’m going to share a story from last July when hiking among fireweed shining below black silhouettes of trees along St. Mary Lake on the east side of Glacier National Park. After we left, wildfires ignited in the park and today people are reeling from the size and scope, including the burning of historic Sperry Chalet. The loss of the chalet is very sad. What we think may have happened to our favorite trails also can be hard to take, unless there’s a bit of perspective.
Two years ago, the Reynolds Creek fire dominated national news as it raced along the Going to the Sun road and St. Mary Lake. Wildfire Rages at Glacier National Park proclaimed the L.A. Times. Was the aftermath all death, destruction, and waste?
As we hiked along the turquoise waters, a trio of black-backed woodpeckers feasted on beetles within the burned trunks. Robins, mountain bluebirds, and tree swallows dipped in and out of the trees and above the lake. Bear and elk tracks were etched into muds.
On that morning stroll to St. Mary Falls and on to Virginia Falls we saw a higher diversity of wildlife (and more people) than anywhere else during our entire week of hikes. The vistas through cleared trees were spectacular. The hike is far from all in the burn, a reminder that fires often burn in a mosaic pattern.
On our return from the falls, Wes and I encountered a National Park Service naturalist leading a walk through the burn. I stopped to listen to her message.
“We often get questions like this from visitors,” she began, and swept her hand out toward the black trees. “Why do you let those burned trees go to waste? Why don’t you cut them down and get some use out of them? After all, they’re dead and worthless.”
Her answer came as an analogy that I find both relevant and ensconced in wildland fire science. “Every standing burned tree is like money in the bank that grows in value. And when a tree falls, the forest receives the full worth of the investment in nutrients added to the soil.”
Exactly. I’m nodding and smiling as I walk on in the company of fire-dependent birds and of a new forest fertilized and all the richer for a wildfire in a national park that will never face the threat of “salvage” logging. Each standing dead tree has value that multiplies over time and yields perhaps its highest dividends when it falls to the forest floor, where an entire community of life benefits. I saw that firsthand on another hike in 2016 in the protected Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness (see my Blog).
I add another piece of wood to the stove before this fall day naturally warms. I hold the split, blue-stained lodgepole pine close to my nose and inhale its woodsy scent. It’s the that time of year to split and stack wood and I’m eager to try the maul again, aiming for the crack and the one-swing split.
I remind myself that I’m part of a wood-using society, and all of us are part of this ecosystem. Yet, our human-induced climate change is turning up the heat in the West with record-breaking temperatures that worsen by the year. We can expect and will have to brace ourselves for longer fire seasons and smokier late summers, and also to embrace that we do live in a dynamic, fire-shaped landscape.
We can’t sit back when it comes to climate change. Each one of us can help turn things around–from driving less and conserving more, to planting native gardens for birds and pollinators, and making our voices heard and supporting journalism that gets the story right, from National Public Radio to High Country News. And don’t sell yourself short on what you are doing to help every day in your profession–whether it’s teaching our children, driving a bus (yay public transportation), or working in social services. It’s all connected. The healthier we are, the more resilient we can be in a changing climate, and the kinder we are to each other, the kinder we can be to this planet.
Finally, we must speak up for our embattled climate scientists, wildland fire scientists, and ecologists. They are our champions we need to guide our actions in a way that is informed and not political or driven by greed for more board feet. The science I’m reading makes sense, like managing forests close to the wildland urban interface; improving land use to prevent expanding houses in fire-prone areas; investing in creating defensible space around existing structures; and protecting our old growth forests that are the most fire resilient.
I’ll end on a note of gratitude for all the forward thinking scientists who help us care for forests with greater wisdom, humility, and knowledge, for the trees themselves, and the brave advocates who speak up on their behalf. As The Lorax reminds us--“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” And this quote, so relevant for all of us in this perilous time: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Thank you, Dr. Seuss.