It’s been about a year since lightning started a fire that burned almost 4,500 acres in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park. Local fire managers and ecologists invited journalists to see how the burn site is recovering and learn how fire plays a role on the landscape.
Between Big Sky and West Yellowstone on Highway 191, the forest turns into a mosaic of green, grey and brown. It’s the burn scar left over from the Bacon Rind Fire — one of the biggest wildfires in Montana last year.
John Cataldo is a fire manager with Yellowstone National Park.
“When we show most fire maps, we color the interior in with all red or all black as if everything within that perimeter has become a burned wasteland, and that’s really almost never the case with any fire. You’ve always got this mixed severity thing going on,” says Cataldo.
Forests that look like moonscapes would be considered a high severity burn. Only about 12 percent of the Bacon Rind Fire’s burn area was high severity. About 40 percent was moderate and the rest was low, meaning a lot of the trees and plants survived.
“We’re going to walk through here over to the trail and then back down the trail," says Mariah Leuschen-Longergan with the U.S. Forest Service. She leads the group to a burn area considered moderate severity.
"There’s some really nice Indian paintbrush if you want some wildflower pictures and the burn, pretty nice photo op.”
Just beyond the wildflowers is a stand of dead lodgepole pine. The trunks are charred and the tree tops that survived last summer’s flames have now turned brown and brittle.
The forest floor is a different story. Fireweed, lilies and willows spread out like a bright green carpet. Many of the plants are well-adapted to survive fire and some like lodgepole pines actually need it to release their seeds.
“It’s a natural cycle. The fire’s just, you know, playing its natural role in the wilderness," says Fire Ecologist Todd Erdody with the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
He says many animals benefit from patches of burned forest as well.
“Species like woodpeckers can come in and build cavities in some of the dead trees, and once they leave, a few years after that, songbirds will use those cavities eventually,” says Erdody.
Elk and deer can eat the young, nutrient-rich plants, and there’s more open space for goshawks to hunt.
When the fire started last July, Jeff Shanafelt with the Custer Gallatin Forest Service says crews collected pine needles and large logs on the forest floor to test moisture levels.
“When we did that, we saw our fuel moistures were actually pretty high, and we knew that we’re not going to get catastrophic fire out of this. It’s not going to move really fast on us. This is going to be a pretty low-intensity fire that’s going to create a mosaic that’s going to be beneficial to the ecosystem,” Shanafelt says.
Instead of suppressing the fire, managers from Custer Gallatin National Forest, Yellowstone National Park and Gallatin County decided to closely monitor it. They used computer models to predict where it would move and how fast, and they monitored the fire from the air with a helicopter and drone.
When the fire started to move closer to the privately-owned, historic Black Butte Ranch, an interagency team built fire lines around the buildings and put a water pump in the creek.
“We did have trigger points identified, places near 191 and Black Butte Ranch, where if it got close enough, we would actively go in there to suppress that fire and protect those values at risk,” says Shanafelt.
Duncan Patten is one of the co-owners of the ranch.
“My daughter lives in the second cabin just on the back side of it, and she sits out there in the evening. And she could hear the fire crackling on the hill,” Patten says.
Snow and colder weather put out the fire before it got too close. Using tree samples on his ranch, Patten — who has a Ph.D in ecology — says the last big wildfire here was about 180 years ago.
“The stands we have around here, have these young stuff and the old stuff, and the old stuff is burnable; the young stuff creates ladders, and we know sooner or later, we’re going to be getting fire,” says Patten.
Across the highway in Yellowstone National Park, the Rathbone Fire burned in 2003.
Yellowstone’s John Cataldo says the fire managers and ecologists were curious what would happen when the Bacon Rind Fire moved into that old burn scar.
“It moved into it a little bit, and you can see parts where it re-burned parts of the Rathbone, but it held it without any effort from us,” says Cataldo.
He says it burned less than one percent.
“But that was something we were keeping a close eye on and just trying to keep our eyes wide open. You don’t want to assume anything.”
More fire managers in Montana are trying to mimic this natural process with controlled burns in the spring and fall. The idea behind it is that it could reduce the risk of large, fast-moving wildfires.
With good snow pack this winter and a wet, cool spring, the Forest Service expects an average to below fire season this year.