An ALMOST Forest Fire

We had a wonderful winter at Elk Lake. In fact, all of southwest Montana and the surrounding countryside which includes the Centennial and Madison Valleys enjoyed more snow (translate that more water) than those downstream knew how to handle. However, a dry summer followed our wet winter. Since we were more than ready for summer, we had no complaints. Yet, as the delighful, dry days followed each other like soldiers marching in a parade, our thoughts could not help but turn to the heavy fuel loads on the surrounding hillsides. Then along came August with its lightening storms. Sometimes wet; usually dry. Thus that unwanted (and yes, feared, phone call) came as no surprise. "What are you guys cooking up there? Looks like you have quite a BBQ? Did you forget to invite me to the party?" A friend from the Madison Valley heralded the unwanted news. Some fishermen confirmed his report a few minutes later. While they'd seen no lightning and heard no thunder, there could be no doubt - up near Hidden Lake a fire burned.
We immediately called the Dillon fire dispatch - a number we had never had reason to use, not even once, in the previous seven summers. Now the waiting game began. Would they put it out or use it for 'resource management'? (By the way: I'd be curious to know how many of you manage your cash like we 'manage' our forests. I have never been tempted to manage my money by feeding it to the flames! How about you?) Would the wind blow from the south (like usual) or the north (as it does on occasion in August)? How far would it spread? How much damage would it do? And thus we spent a semi-restless night.
Mid-morning I received the call I had been half dreading. The Forest Service ranger had the decision: "Our fire team has reached a conclusion. While we would like to use this fire for resource management, we feel our resources are just too stretched to handle another fire." THANK GOD! I had the answer I had been praying for. Yet, when I expressed my relief, the ranger seemed surprised. "You were worried?" Well, yes! Based on their management policies, I have to admit knowing I had the USFS protecting my home and business was not very comforting. Besides, while the USFS considered the fire in 'broken country' (i.e. not a lot of fuel and thus easy to control), I knew the areas between Elk Lake Resort (or Wade Lake or Cliff Lake) and the fire supported substantial fuel loads.
So, although I had not seen the fire, the fire crew heading toward Hidden Lake a couple hours later brought a great sense of relief. The fact they returned the next day made me feel even better. The lone person who returned the next couple of days to confirm the fire was out - a precautionary measure I greatly appreciated. The one or two man crew who continued to check the fire daily for the next two or three weeks - even after a substantial rain storm - well, they were harder to figure out. Yet, the USFS put the fire out - so I remain forever grateful.
In the leading photo, you can see that the upper landing campground (above the parking lot and outhouse) offered a great fire vantage point. From there you can see why they considered the burn to be in 'broken' country. You also get an idea of the area burned. The second photo shows the burn as you approach it from the 'new' trail. The third reveals how close this fire (which only burned about 18 hours - with a large portion of that through a cool, mostly still night) came to topping out trees and really taking off. And the third, fourth, and fifth photos show the fire damage from various angles. As these reveal, the country, while broken, contained areas of heavy timber with substantial deadfall (i.e. - plenty of fuel to feed but never satiate a hungry fire).
The Fireline makes a clear demarkation between burned and un-burned (except where the fire - a mere beginner - managed to jump over it). While the burn damage is slight (thanks to the quick supression), the difference is significant. I couldn't help but think of Smokey the Bear's theme as I viewed the sight. Or, maybe more appropriately, the newer signage asking "Which do you want? This? or This?" (with pencil sketches of a green forest contrasted to a burnt landscape). I know my preference. Especially with several years of the current management system under our belts.
Yet my primary cause for concern is seen in this and the following picture. Standing at the top of the burn and looking toward Elk Lake, I viewed a green countryside which very likely would look significantly different right now had the USFS decision swung the other way.
On the other hand, our summer breezes are predominately southern. This means Elk Lake Resort sits in a mostly protected location since the nearly treeless and wet Centennial Valley is our southern neighbor. Cliff, Wade, and Hidden Lakes are not so fortunate. In fact, 'this' is the picture which would most likely have changed as the flames, driven by that southerly wind, flew north down the chain of lakes to the Madison Valley.
After our sobering reminder, we turned toward a little tarn of which my hunting hubby knew. Its lush greeness tucked amongst the heavy firs and pines stood in stark contrast to the fire-scorched landscape such a short distance away.
And, while I am no wildlife biologist, I have a feeling the animals which traveled this obviously well-used trail from the tarn to the lush grassy feed nearby, are also breathing a sigh of relief. After all, while my home 'might' have been threatened, their homes were in danger and they had NO voice!
Certainly this guy - the KING of a species very negatively impacted by the YNP fires - appeared to prefer the lush unburned meadows to the charred fields just a short moose-jaunt away.
As we headed back past Hidden Lake, I couldn't help but relish the view. Clear blue waters embraced by fir and pine draped hillsides topped by an emerald blue sky! Ahh - the beauty out my back door - something I see on a regular basis - now to be appreciated even more after its close scrape with death! Lady of the Lake

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