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Inside the Outdoors: Bad fire, good fire

Inside the Outdoors

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

It’s been a most unusual couple of weeks, atmospherically speaking. It began with a pall of smoke drifting down from forest fires near the Canadian border, smoke so thick it blocked sunlight and turned islands and shorelines into gray silhouettes in broad daylight, like a blanketing morning fog, or deepest twilight. Beyond tightly closed windows, the air was laced with the scent of burning. Not the pleasing aroma of a campfire, but the acrid smell of perhaps a welding shop, or a neighbor burning trash in their fireplace. Judging by the sensory evidence, one might have guessed that the fires were dozens of miles away, not hundreds.

Then—like an NFL instant replay—as the past week drew to a close there came a second round of air quality warnings for two-thirds of Minnesota, as a south-flowing weather system brought another wave of smoke from fires that are still burning, most of them across the border in Canada. The same acrid smell permeated the air whenever a door or window was opened. Not to mention the health hazards that airborne smoke and “particulates” afloat in the air pose to those who breathe it, especially those who have respiratory issues to begin with.

The fires in northern Minnesota have burned more than 4,000 acres. Firefighters on this side of the international boundary now have the upper hand, and some of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness campsite and point-of-entry closures have been lifted. But with fires still burning on the Canadian side in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, some access closures remain. A campfire ban remains in effect on both sides of the border. Only fuel-powered stoves can be used for cooking, so the tradition of s’mores and ghost stories over an open fire is suspended, too.

Beyond the forest fires that continue to burn in our region, vast areas of the West are engulfed in the same, and some fires are far larger. More than 80 fires have been reported in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, New Mexico and elsewhere. A single California wildfire has burned more than 180,000 acres. A limited number of dwellings have been destroyed, but many hundreds more are considered endangered if these fires are not contained. Some 14,000 firefighters have been attacking fires that collectively were estimated to cover close to a million acres.

Those of us who grew up with Smoky the Bear as the familiar mascot and spokesperson for forest fire prevention can imagine the friendly cartoon-ish character with a sad face, and a tear escaping from the corner of his eye. We grew up with a message that implied that all forest fires should be prevented. It’s certainly an unwanted outcome to have homes destroyed, to have the lives of highly trained and dedicated firefighters put at risk, or even to have recreational plans—like hiking, wilderness fishing or canoe trips—disrupted.


But it’s just as true that fire is a force of Nature, and that the aftermath of fires is not permanent devastation, but a re-setting of the cycle of living things in that landscape. The classic example of this is Yellowstone Park in 1988. The fires there began in June and the last flames did not die out until November. Over the course of those five months some 25,000 firefighters from various parts of the U.S. fought to contain the blazes and minimize the damage to property and possessions.

At the time, the National Park Service—guardians of Yellowstone and the country’s other national park—had a policy of allowing lightning-caused natural fires in remote areas to run their course. Fire is necessary to several natural processes that rejuvenate ecosystems. Fire frees seeds inside the waxy cones of several coniferous tree species—like the western lodgepole pine and our own jackpine—so they can fall to earth and the trees reproduce. Periodic fires also maintain prairie grassland for grazing species of big game—including antelope and elk—as it once did for millions of buffalo. Fire releases nutrients that become available for the life processes of other living things. Periodic fires also reduce “tinder”—accumulations of dead, dry brush and trees—that can turn small fires into huge ones.

1988 was an exceptional year for Yellowstone, with drought conditions much like we have now. Little rain, low humidity and high winds fanned multiple fires caused by lightning and by human carelessness into such a dangerous state that the Service opted to put its “let it burn” policy on-hold after some 17,000 acres had been blackened. In the end, more than a million acres would burn across the Yellowstone area.

Those who had come to love Yellowstone just as they had known it feared the worst. They envisioned it as a permanent black moonscape they would never recognize. But just one year later young lodgepole pine seedlings could be seen on the burn area. Today the post-fire lodgepole pioneers are more than 30 years old, green and healthy, and have proven the hand-wringers’ fears were premature. The aftermath of the 1988 Yellowstone fires also provided a laboratory for the study of plant and animal communities and how they respond to fire. More than 250 fire-related research projects were conducted there in the two decades following the fires.

A human attribute that is both virtue and vice is our desire for things to remain constant, in a state where they best suit us. We see a mature forest that is green and beautiful in summer, or aflame with orange and red and gold in autumn, and we want it to stay that way. But change is Nature’s way, and often actually works to our advantage. For example, We would have fewer ruffed grouse if aspen forests were allowed to mature and die of old age, and were not “reset” periodically by what some would call “destruction;” by windstorm, by fire or—a management tactic that imitates these—by selective logging.

The same natural forces of recovery and rejuvenation in Yellowstone will rule the aftermath of the fires that have burned and continue to burn in the wilderness country along and north of the U.S.-Canada border. No one is insensitive to the loss of property during such fire events. Nor should we be unsympathetic about the inconvenience and disappointment of those whose plans to visit and experience such places had to be abandoned. But we can find a silver lining behind those smoky clouds that have darkened our skies and temporarily threatened our health, knowing that Nature has a time-tested post-fire recovery plan.


Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

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