A yellow plastic sign stapled to a skinny black tree warned ENTERING BURN: STAY ON ROADS AND TRAILS. It was a classic June day in western Montana: 50 degrees and you judge how good the weather is by how hard the rain is beating against the windshield. I was in the passenger seat of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Richard Hutto, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana, was leading me into the heart of the Rice Ridge Fire burn area in the foothills of the Swan mountain range.
Nine months earlier, in September 2017, this burn was the nation’s top firefighting priority during the second-most-expensive fire season on record. Rice Ridge eventually consumed 160,000 acres of forest and cost the U.S. Forest Service $49 million to fight. Smoke levels in nearby Seeley Lake went off the charts (actually exceeding what the air quality sensors could measure). An evacuation order was issued, and the local high school had to move its classes to a nearby dude ranch.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better fire,” Hutto said, and as an ecologist he was serious. He drove on past the sign and into what he calls “nature’s best-kept secret,” a young burned forest.
In every direction bare trees reached up into the low gray sky, their naked branches pinwheeling off trunks as black as chainsaw oil. Yet on the ground, tiny starbursts of beargrass were already creeping out of fireproof stems, singed at the tips but otherwise brilliant green against the black soil. Off in the distance, a swath of burned trees swept down a valley and up the next slope, the red-needled edges forming huge paisleys on the green mountainside.
Severely burned forests can look barren, but beetles, birds, and other wildlife begin returning as soon as the flames go out. Photo by Hugh Powell.
Birds were everywhere. Western Tanagers chirruped and Western Wood-Pewees buzzed. A Mountain Bluebird the color of movie-star eyes gleamed from a jet-black spar of larch. A Hermit Thrush sang, and everywhere woodpeckers—Hairy, Downy, American Three-toed, Northern Flicker—rattled, cackled, and whinnied.
There was one other splash of color: blue flagging tape tied around the black trees. It was there to mark areas slated for salvage logging, which is the industry term for cutting dead wood in order to capitalize on its economic value.
Here on this muddy Forest Service road, two conflicting views of fire were meeting head-on. One view, currently prevailing among society at large, regards Rice Ridge as a costly and tragic “megafire,” a catastrophe that endangered homes and destroyed valuable forest that would take decades to recover. If you buy this view—of burned forest as ruined forest—then salvage logging seems only prudent, a way to temper the losses the fire inflicted.
Because of increased sunshine and available nutrients, wildflowers grow abundantly in burned forests for the first decade or more after a fire.
But many fire ecologists have long had an alternate perspective on large, severe fires like Rice Ridge: that they are inevitable and largely unstoppable, like a hurricane. Far from destroying forests, these fires touch off a frenzy of ecological activity—a tumult of new plants, mushrooms, insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals—that’s unlike anything that happens in the quiet shade of a green forest.
“This is a habitat that’s like no other habitat on Planet Earth,” Hutto says, and salvage logging is just about the worst thing that could be done to it. “If you take the [burned] trees out, all these special things go away.”
It was exploring this dichotomy—wildfire as disaster versus wildfire as essential natural process—that drew me back out West last June, back into the burned forests I’d fallen in love with 20 years ago. Back then I was one of Hutto’s graduate students, and I studied the Black-backed Woodpecker, a bird that is intimately adapted to burned forests. I spent three years covered in soot and camping among the jet-black trees, watching the forest come back to life.
This is a habitat that’s like no other habitat on Planet Earth.~Richard Hutto
Today the fire season is longer than it was during my grad school days. The long-term trends show fire seasons are nearly three months longer than they were in the 1970s. And 100,000-acre megafires are burning more frequently. Yet little has changed in how the U.S. government approaches fire, besides the price tag. From 1985 to 1995 the U.S. spent just over $4 billion fighting fires; from 2008 to 2018 it spent nearly $20 billion.
Meanwhile, more homes are being built in harm’s way, in the spaces where towns and forest intermingle and where fires will eventually burn as surely as hurricanes will strike the Gulf Coast. More than 12.7 million new homes went up in this “wildland-urban interface” just between 1990 and 2010. And with each new fire, journalists and politicians repeat the same three misconceptions—about fuel accumulation, the need to suppress fire, and the need to salvage log—all built on the mistaken impression that fire is unnatural.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any patch of forest in the Northern Rockies that isn’t in one stage or another of succession following a severe fire event,” Hutto says. “If you want to use [fire] funding to save a house from burning down, fine. That’s a disaster. But a fire burning out in the middle of nowhere is not a disaster.”
Back at Rice Ridge, we wandered off the roadside in search of an American Three-toed Woodpecker that was tattooing the tippy-top of a charred Douglas-fir. This was a stand-replacement or crown fire—the terrifying kind that leaps into the canopy, sends up walls of flame, and rips across the landscape. It’s precisely this most powerful, least tameable kind of fire that Hutto says people need to make peace with.
It only takes one visit to a burned forest to realize it’s much more than a pile of ash at the bottom of a charcoal grill. A burned forest is more like a bank vault with the door blown wide open. Fire knocks out a tree’s chemical defenses but barely touches its nutritious interior. Far from being dried husks, fire-killed trees stay so insulated you can still squeeze water out of the inner bark a year after a fire.