Wilderness rejuvenated as fires are allowed to resume their natural role.
“It’s a beautiful story,” says Steve Wirt, scanning a fire history map of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Sprawled across the map are multi-colored polygons depicting fires that have occurred over the last 24 years. Many represent undesirable fires that involved firefighting efforts, but Wirt is looking at dozens of fires that were allowed to burn for “resource benefits.”
Although the fires are usually out of sight and out of mind for most Montanans, they have been shaping the wilderness by U.S. Forest Service design nearly every year since 1981.
Even this year, early in September, there were six fires burning in the wilderness.
Now that roughly 22 percent of the land base in “the Bob” has burned over the last two decades, Wirt says fire is finally resuming its natural role in the wilderness.
“When you look at the mosaic of fires that have burned over the last 20 years, it’s probably very similar to what occurred in the 1800s,” Wirt said. “Not a whole lot of fires occurred in the wilderness from 1929 to 1985.”
Dave Bunnell, a Forest Service veteran who recently retired as the agency’s national fire use program manager, has calculated that between 1934 and the early 1980s, only 3,000 acres burned on the 1.5 million acres that now make up the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Since 1981, more than 340,000 acres have burned over the same area.
The change has introduced diversity, regenerating fire-dependent vegetation. It has led to browse growth, providing benefits for wildlife. And perhaps most significantly, the burns of the last 20 years have actually improved the Forest Service’s ability to manage future fires in the Bob.
“We’re already seeing the benefits of larger fires keeping new fires smaller,” Wirt said.
Decades of fire suppression had the opposite effect, increasing the potential for small fires to become huge infernos.
After the 1929 Sullivan Creek fire ravaged the Spotted Bear area, the Forest Service engaged in a warlike campaign against all wilderness fires. A network of fire guard stations and lookouts was built and firefighters followed the “10 a.m. rule,” mandating that all smokes were to be extinguished by 10 in the morning. By the 1940s aircraft and smokejumpers had joined the fight.
The campaign was remarkably successful.
Bunnell and a handful of other longtime firefighters eventually questioned policies that basically prevented forest management in wilderness. Logging isn’t allowed in wilderness areas and fire — the natural process that has shaped the forest for centuries — had effectively been excluded.
But overcoming the Forest Service’s firefighting culture to establish a limited, experimental wilderness fire program was easier said than done, Bunnell says.
“We were kind of outlaws” within the agency, Bunnell says. “It was a major change in Forest Service culture … Fire control is very easy to understand, it’s a black-and-white world. Fire management is a very different world with lots of gray.”
The very first “prescribed natural fire” in the wilderness complex was an innocuous 231-acre burn in the Scapegoat Wilderness that was managed by Norm Kamrud.
“I was there,” says Kamrud, who is still active on the district. “I got to manage that one. That was considered a fairly large step at that time.”
The first significant fire that was allowed to burn for resource benefits was the 1985 Charlotte Peak fire, which was managed by Bunnell, who was working as the Flathead National Forest’s fire management officer at the time.
“This is the 20th anniversary of the Charlotte Peak fire,” says Bunnell, who now lives in the Ronan area.
That fire burned 5,500 acres and established a benchmark for future fire operations in the Bob and other wilderness areas.
The program carried on until the historic 1988 fire season, when a small fire emerged on June 25 in the Canyon Creek drainage on the western flank of the Scapegoat Wilderness. The fire showed little activity and the Forest Service was fully occupied with a swath of other fires across the Northern Rockies.
Things changed on Sept. 6 with a freakish weather event: the jet stream dropped to the terrestrial surface and drove the Canyon Creek fire into the largest single-day fire growth ever recorded: 160,000 acres. The fire rushed across the Continental Divide, ripping through thick timber all the way to the prairie, nearly reaching the town of Augusta.
Burning through an estimated 70 million board feet of timber, 200 miles of fencing and six buildings, the fire killed 200 cows along the way.
The fire prompted an immediate reconsideration of the wilderness fire program, leading to a series of changes. Most notably, the Forest Service adopted a “maximum allowable perimeter” policy, and it established weather and fuel standards that had to be met for any resource benefit fires to proceed.
That’s still the case.
“We’re suppressing about 50 percent of our fires, and there are good reasons why we are suppressing them,” Wirt said.
Fires that burn too early in the summer, or in a location where its spread can’t be contained by natural barriers, or in places that threaten major access routes to the wilderness, are likely to be put out.
Wirt points to a series of fires that have started in the southern interior of the wilderness complex, just north of the old Canyon Creek burn.
The High fire was stopped at 122 acres on a 7,000-foot ridge entirely with helicopters. It become “the most expensive small fire” that’s ever occurred in the wilderness, according to Wirt.
Like other fires in the same area that were stopped at small acreages, the High fire was perfectly poised for a downhill run into miles of timber. It was suppressed mainly to prevent it from running to the East Front just as the Canyon Creek fire did.
So fire exclusion continues in that part of the wilderness complex, while the Forest Service is taking bold steps to bring it back. Specifically, Lewis and Clark National Forest is pursuing the largest prescribed burns ever conducted in the wilderness to serve as a buffer to prevent upwind wilderness fires from escaping.
About 6,000 acres were burned two years ago in the East Front’s Sun River drainage, with plans for an additional 4,000 acres to be burned, possibly this fall.
Fires of the last 20 years have repeatedly proven to be effective in stopping new fires from growing. Just this summer, the 6,000-acre human-caused Kelly Point fire erupted in the South Fork drainage. It raced uphill and eastward through the Hodag drainage, but was stopped on its southern flank when it reached the area burned by the 1994 Helen Creek fire.
“The larger fires we have now will give us smaller fires in the future,” Wirt said. “We could easily have a 10,000-acre fire right now, had we not had the Helen Creek fire in 1994.”
“I feel more and more confident that these large-scale, continental-type fires have less chance of running,” Bunnell said. “With the large amount of burning we’ve been able to accomplish in the Bob, the chances of that occurring is less and less.”
There is nothing uniform about the burns that have occurred over the last two decades. All of the old perimeters are now in widely varying stages of forest succession.
Even the once-blackened path of the Canyon Creek fire looks nothing like it did after the 1988 fire.
“Now almost 20 years later, we have trees that are 20 feet tall,” Wirt said.
The new forests have regenerated dozens of plant species that depend entirely on fire to propagate. Bicknell’s geranium, purple dragonhead and red-stem ceanothus are among the plants that drop seeds that remain dormant for hundreds of years, waiting for fire to trigger germination.
The burned areas have become prime seedbeds for the increasingly rare whitebark pine, which are propagated by the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that has a preference for caching seeds in ash-covered soils.
No longer inhibited by thick tree canopies, shrubs and grasses come back with vigor, providing improved conditions for wildlife. For years, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials have said fire was desperately needed to improve conditions for elk in the upper South Fork Flathead drainage.
That fire has come to pass in just the last few years, most notably with 48 fires burning 88,000 acres during the summer of 2003. Most of that burning occurred in the South Fork, led by the 36,000-acre Little Salmon fire.
“The last few summers, there’s been incredible activity,” said Jim Williams, regional wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “It’s a mosaic. It’s a nice distribution of burns, and the elk will benefit, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
While fire has progressed in the wilderness, so has the public’s perception of it, according to Wirt and Bunnell.
“People are starting to get it,” Bunnell said. “They are making the transition.”
It is more common now for wilderness advocates to question why a fire was put out than it is for them to ask why one wasn’t, Wirt said.
But still, the public gets jittery about the potential for escaped fires. The Great Falls Tribune recently reported that East Front residents — outfitters in particular — were questioning the Forest Service for not taking action to suppress the Hazard Lake fire when it was at 760 acres in late August.
As of last week, the fire had mushroomed to 5,700 acres. At that point, the fire was being managed in a classic “modified suppression” method — helicopters and firefighters worked to prevent the fire from spreading east and out of the wilderness, and it was being fought to the south, to prevent it from entering a “fire exclusion zone” within the wilderness.
Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Munoz said the firefighting effort was working well on both fronts, and rain put a big damper on the fire over the weekend. The fire is expected to be highly beneficial to elk populations, along with regenerating aspen stands and providing an effective fire break for that area over the next few decades.