Where There is Smoke

No matter where you live, there is a time of year you hope is short lived. You go through the five stages of seasonal grief - lamenting its approach, raise anger over its arrival, accept (or resign) to it, pine for its end, and finally celebrate its passing. Here in the Intermountain west, and most of the west for that matter it is the haze and heat filled days of late summer fire season. Usually the latter parts of August and beginning of September, smoke from fires in surrounding states gathers and settles in the valley. The heavy haze turns the sun red, trapping the heat and stagnating the particle-heavy air making outdoor ventures pretty undesirable. 

Having reached maxed capacity on spending time inside, we headed to the high country in hopes of some reprieve. As we drove northeast towards the higher elevation mountains, the distant (at least what we could see of it) ranges did not instill confidence. Before leaving I knew there was a fire burning near where we were headed, but I held out hope that there might be a break. Turning off the main road onto the dirt forest service road, the hazy skies proved by hypothesis wrong.

It had been several years since I last spent time in this particular drainage, and as we made our way farther along, each dirt road mile revealed evidence that the surrounding hillsides had experienced a significant fire in my absence. The forest alternated between live stands and spindly remains. In several spots chutes of rock and debris culminated at the base of denuded slopes where rains scoured vegetation-less ruts. The combination of smoky skies and chard forest stands made for an eerie feeling and briefly I questioned the wisdom of camping back in a dead-end canyon. As we passed by several campsites I hoped our neighbors would adhere to the numerous signs stating the prohibition of campfires.

We found a quiet spot to camp in a stand of trees that for the most part survived the fire, most likely aided by the nearby creek. After settling in, we decided to take a short hike to a nearby lake. Given the scene as we drove in, I thought about how different everything appeared and wondered how the trails had faired through the fire. As we made our way up several switchbacks we walked through a graveyard of scorched trees, many stripped of their bark, others looking like the standing remains of a previous night’s campfire. I thought what a shame it was that a place that I remembered as being so beautiful now looked so scarred. 

Climbing higher (and breathing heavier) my brain’s pace began to slow and my vision seemed to pick up more of the details. While the obvious was the dead trees surrounding us, the more subtle was all of the undergrowth that had grown with the opening of the canopy. We often think of fire as a negative, when it is in fact an important element to many western ecosystems. Fires often clear unhealthy and dead trees. Quickly behind them comes new life and vegetation that benefits from the aftereffects. It might look unsightly at first, but deadfall provides cover for animals, enriches the soils, and creates structure in the rivers for trout. Seeing these more subtle details reveals just how resilient the landscape can be. Even trails for which I came to this drainage survive. Yes, signs may burn and some downfall may need to be removed, the underlying paths and destinations remain.

We fear fire, and rightfully so. Having once been evacuated from my home due to an impending blaze, I feel for folks in California right now. Fires today are also different than they were even 100-200 years ago. Poor land management, even poorer land-use planning, and global weirding have all combined to create “mega-fires” that are too much even for the natural ecosystem. But just as I accept the inevitability of fire season, we residents of the west must accept that fire is part of our environment. We need to look past the obvious destructive effects of fire and consider the importance it plays in the long-term health of our regions.

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