Up Through the Ashes 13

From the flames to recovery and renewal in our forests

As I heave myself upward and onward through the snow-covered trail before me, my breath does the same against my ribs, sending small clouds of warmth out into the biting air. My chocolate Labrador runs effortlessly ahead of me, chasing a scent over heaps of downed trees, mazing over and under them on a path that’ll lead to nowhere in particular. Surrounding us are gray and black wiry spindles stretching high to the heavens—evidence of another city of trees, lost forever.

It’s an eerie place, this burn area. Its footing is loose and charred beneath the recent snowfall; the tall trunks are brittle and some, hollowed. There’s something enchanting about a lush forest, one so dense that it seems to always be night, but that mystery has been stripped from this place. It is vast, yet populated by these tall splinters in our earth, torched and exposed by a fiery fury.

I keep tracking farther and then pause to notice my Lab’s snout buried deep into the spidery shoots of bear grass that have yet to be dressed completely in snow. That pop of green reminds me that this place won’t always be a barren canvas. It will flourish like it once did, with wildflowers and wildlife. Treads and soles of adventurers like me will witness its rebirth from the ground up. It’s then that I think, No, this place isn’t lost forever.

Like a brand to its hide, the Bitterroot National Forest endured the singeing and smoke of two major forest fires during the summer of 2016. Combined, the Roaring Lion and the Observation fires stole more than 10,000 acres, forcing our wildlife to find refuge elsewhere, and our southern Bitterroot communities to migrate to friends and family away from the raging blaze. However, despite the devastation, there is hope for renewal.

Ecologists and fire behavior experts alike say that forest fires are a natural part of our ecosystem. Mother Nature begins her healing whether the fires were man-induced or of her own accord.

The downed trees that my Lab is rocketing over are home to birds and small animals. The short knobs where branches grew from their bases have become perches and feeding platforms for these new settlers. All forests, even those that are healthy, are home to decaying plant matter and dead trees. When a roaring blaze blows through and turns them to ashes, nutrients are returned to the soil and later slowly fuel the birth of new plants.

This process of regrowth is referred to as natural succession, where vegetation begins to populate the abandoned forest floor and, in turn, welcomes new lifeforms. Ecologists have seen rapid regrowth and even saplings sprouting up within a decade of a low- to medium-severity fire that burned earlier in a summer season.

Montana, unfortunately, experiences her fires late in the summer season when the moisture has depleted, leaving our forest in its most vulnerable state for high-severity fires. It may take multiple decades before we see—from the car window on our morning commute or on an afternoon hike with friends—a noticeable change in these blackened areas. Its beginning may be a far-off flame, perhaps a century away from today, but the day will come when life rises up through the ashes.

Whenever something is lost, shards of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art,” come to mind.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. …

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

I finish my trek with the sighting of my Lab—nose still to the ground, zigzagging her way to our vehicle. Her journey today has been lit with life, buzzing with the heartbeat of a new beginning.