Saturday, August 23, 2008

A matter of fuels

"You should name your next dog 'Fire,'" Kate tells me earlier this week as we watched aspen logs morph into glowing red embers. "That way," she continued, "you can talk about fire all you want and people won't think you're strange, you're just talking about your dog." I laughed, thinking of phrases I repeat at least 50 times a year, usually exclusively while huddled around a campfire: "Don't you just love the way Fire rips up a draw?" and "Wow, look at the effects of Fire on that hillside...." followed by the most common "man, I'd love to set Fire to that."

I can't help it, I guess, that when I see fire I conjure images of prescribed burns I've worked, of my colleague's early experience setting Taum Sauk Mountain on fire, of the wonderful effects fire has on our woods. So I regale my fellow campfire attendees with fire stories. Out west, however, my mind turns to those harrowing videos I saw in wildland fire fighting school--300 foot flames moving through spruce forests at 50 mph. Because I was in Idaho this week surrounded by flashy, grassy fuels, my baby sister's log cabin behind us and plumes of smoke coming from the Targhee NF to the south, I was reminded that 1,200 miles away my colleagues were not suppressing but mimickinglightning fires, the ultimate in reproducing natural fire events. The rest of my program spent the week performing growing season burns on glades in the Ozark Highlands while I remained hesitant to throw another log on a contained campfire.

What I know about fire I learned in Missouri's woods, on her prairies, or in fire school. I know that in a typical Missouri summer (not in the middle of a drought), our managed woodlands won't burn. I know that in Missouri, on a grassy glade in July with humidities around 25%, you can set windrows of red needle stage cedars on fire and needn't worry about the adjacent woods. The fire extinguishes itself at the woodline.

But fire out west is a different story, one I wanted to understand better. My trip to Idaho and Montana (which caused me to shelve- for the 5th year in a row -a visit to Maine's moist woods and craggy shorelines) corresponded to the 20th anniversary of the Yellowstone fires. Driving through western Idaho and into Montana, I witnessed fire effects from the Yellowstone and subsequent fires: wooly mountainsides, pine regeneration, towering remains of lodgepole pines and spruce resembling spent matchsticks (pictured, the southern reaches of Glacier NP). Small town newspapers recounted the controversy surrounding the Yellowstone fires in full section spreads, complete with pictures of raging flames ripping through the landscape, flames finally extinguished by a thick blanket of snow.

So, my thoughts return to Missouri and fire behaviour in our own woods. We have lightning storms, drought, overstocked woods, days when our humidities are conducive to fire, but we simply don't have enormous crown fires like they do out west. Our fuels are different, our weather patterns different, our whole landscape different. (In the past 25 years since the introduction of prescribed burning in the state, Missouri's Ozark Highlands have witnessed at least one stand replacing fire. Highly controversial, the prescribed fire invited heaps of criticism onto the administering agency. Historically, of course, we would have seen more crown fires in the Ozarks, but few will prescribe them today.)

Slowly making my way through central Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest, I pass the same sign every 90 miles or so: a lifesize Smokey Bear pointing to a color wheel indicating fire danger. From Ketchum north, the arrow hovers on "Very High," a bright red swath next to "Extreme." It's been a wet summer in Idaho, but the climate is so dry that even the near daily rains wouldn't push that arrow to a level that would make me feel comfortable enough building a campfire in a designated ring. Just before reaching Montana, Smokey gave me a break. The arrow was lowered to "High."

At the Twin Creek campground, just north of the confluence of the truly stunning Salmon River and Twin Creek, families all around my site were sitting around nice, healthy fires. I had picked up a box of firewood in Salmon (home of Sacagawea!) for the night, mainly so I could keep the box: Yellowstone Firewood Co. I gathered a few downed branches of spruce, pine, stray needles, a handful of twigs covered in goatsbeard lichen which looks nothing like any lichen in Missouri, but like a wad of hair from a brush belonging to someone with dark, curly hair. The branches would have caught just fine, giving me a nice little fire, but I lit the match on the lichen. Fire consumed it so quickly that I literally jumped back. Looking above the campsite, every single tree, nay, every branch in the forest was dripping with goatsbeard lichen. "All it takes is a single spark," my friend from the Forest Service repeatedly tells me about wildfires out west. I looked around the campground again. Everyone else still had fires, all contained in the rings made with a foot wide perimeter of concrete. No one else seems to be nervous about the woods catching on fire, about the sparks flying up towards the lichens.

Fuels. I set the small green branch of spruce into the base of the little fire. Whoosh! sparks move upwards into the 30% humidity night air. A green branch of pine. Pop! followed by sparks drifting outside of my designated ring, the forest seeming to be more tinderbox than anyplace peaceful and relaxing. Yes, western fuels are, indeed, quite different. When I build campfires in Missouri, I have this childish tendency to throw handfuls of oak leaves into the embers to get the fire started again, even if only for a second. By midnight in Idaho, I was pouring my cache of drinking water onto this fire. I have infrequent nightmares about prescribed fires escaping in Missouri, and that night in my tent, I dreamt of nothing but forest fires....fires I certainly wanted no part in.

Back at my sister's house in Victor, I mull over my upcoming departure. I've been away from work for weeks, popping in for three half days since July. I love western landscapes: the big vast tracts of public lands, the puffy white clouds, the elevations that cause photographs to take on a blue tint, the insouciance inherent in mountain towns where skiing and kayaking take priority. Every time I go out there, I want to move there. But I don't think I could live or work in a place so prone to massive wildland fires. The recent beetle infestation continues to reduce huge tracts of woods to nothing but kindling. If I worked out there, I'd have to spend most of my time suppressing fire.

Sluggish from a long vacation, I returned to my office with hands full of rocks for my desk, a batch of goatsbeard lichen to show my boss. My more enthusiastic colleague greeted me with great news. While I was out, staff burned several small glades, torching several cedars in the wake. Better news yet is of plans to burn even more in the coming weeks (if the relative humidity stays low enough in the St. Francois Mountains). I came back just in time to take part in growing season burns.

I actually hold a red card which allows me to fight western wildfires, but I lack the strength and stamina to actually do it. While part of me almost wants to see raging walls of flames from far away, I'll leave the firefighting to the experts. I think I have just enough strength and ability to sling a driptorch at the base of a hillside.

1 comment:

Beetles In The Bush said...

Welcome back. Schoolcraft's journal has helped to prevent me from going into "Ozark Highlands of Missouri" withdrawal - but just barely!