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Firewalking: A Forest Fire’s Aftermath

In an ancient cycle older than man, the fires that torched the West in summer 2000 are causing a dramatic and stunning rebirth of the once-charred landscape.

Late last summer, I opened the morning paper to the familiar forest-as-roaring-inferno photograph. Those pictures had burned in the press for months, yet I could remain relatively philosophical about distant fires that had burned unfamiliar terrain.

Then I read the headline: “New Fires Break Out in Beaver Creek.” Panic slammed me in the gut. Beaver Creek is close to my Bozeman, Montana, home and my heart. It is backcountry I have a stake in, land I’ve skied across numerous times, drainages I had hiked through the previous fall. I imagined the quaint Gallatin National Forest log cabin I’d stayed in so many times being consumed, bunk bed by bunk bed. I pictured wind-driven flames licking their way up the valleys toward the alpine meadows, leaving miles of ash and charcoal, favorite mountain camps and trails rendered ghostly and silent, land made sterile.

Montana experienced the brunt of some 84,000 fires that blazed in the West during the summer of 2000. Hazy skies dominated the horizon from fires so big that smoke drifted all the way to the Dakotas, hundreds of miles to the east. By summer’s end, almost 6.7 million acres of land west of the Mississippi had burned. Media reports painted a picture of a sheet of flames charring the entire West. My beloved Beaver Creek was, as the newspapers said, a “disaster.”

Then the deja vu hit me, reminding me of the Yellowstone fires in 1988. Yellowstone National Park is also familiar terrain, and there had been a similarly over-the-top, scorched-earth public response: the vitriolic letters to the editor, citizens wailing about “our land” being destroyed, accusations flying like hot embers. And I felt the same sorrow for losing a beloved place. When I went back to Yellowstone a year after those fires, I returned the way one would to a flood-ravaged town: tentative, afraid, prepared for the worst. I didn’t expect to be awestruck. Yellowstone was radically altered, yes. There were wrenching moments of shock at the scale of the decimation-whole horizons of gray, denuded forest, mountainsides bare but for black trunks, acre after acre of charred earth. It was not only a profound change, but also a humbling testament to nature’s power.

But the disaster had had positive effects, as well. On the flanks of Big Game Ridge bordering the south end of Yellowstone, fire opened up fantastic views of the Tetons that had been blocked by a dense lodgepole pine forest. Trails previously hemmed in by vegetation felt expansive and open. Elks, bison, and birds were no longer hidden from view. These changes in a region I knew so well fascinated me, and I spent the next few years revisiting trails, camping in the backcountry, and reexploring old haunts. Fire had transformed it all, acted as an agent of renewal, of rebirth.

So this past winter, I was poised to once again bear witness to this ancient cycle. Flush with a hint of sorrow that gave way to anticipation, I took my family to the Beaver Creek cabin, which as it turned out, was spared by the fires. The cabin was as quaint and rustic as I’d remembered, despite the charred slopes of Boat Mountain looming to the south. We are planning hikes for coming summers: up Cub Creek and across Sage Basin, through the burn, to the alpine meadows that will burst into full, postfire bloom.

Where the fires burned hottest, the soil itself was cauterized. It may be hundreds of years before this land returns to the dense forest I knew. We’ll find trunks burnished to an amber shine by heat, the exposed wood grain as whorled and complex as a fingerprint. As we walk, the stark landscape will resemble a black-and-white photograph, and will evoke a reverence for a power beyond knowing.

Jagged Hilgard Peak will be visible where curtains of vegetation were drawn open by the summer of fire. We’ll see the ruffed grouse, the Clark’s nutcracker, the tiny kinglets that hid in the underbrush when I last hiked there. There will be the startling red strokes of Indian paintbrush, and the soft lavender of fireweed, in sharp contrast against the burn. Already, the cycle is underway-tree trunks settling into soil, plants and fungi colonizing the black stumps, animals, birds, and insects busy at the work of renewal.

And I will be there to see it happen, walking through that budding, fresh landscape, discovering it anew.

Alan Kesselheim lives in Bozeman, Montana. His latest book is The Wilderness Paddler’s Handbook, published by Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw-Hill.

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