Fire seems like such a cruel end to a forest – turning beauty into charred remains.
We got closer to fires than we’d planned when we visited Yellowstone for the first time in 1988. We knew there were forest fires before we left, but didn’t fully appreciate where it was all headed. We were not alone.
When we entered the park, they told us they had a policy of generally letting fires burn. However, the extremely dry summer fuelling large fires had forced them to switch tactics.
We spent our time looking at heavy smoke instead of gorgeous vistas, cleaning ashes off our tent in the morning and enduring sore throats from the smoky air. Two days was more than enough and we left for cleaner air.
The fire season turned out to be the worst in hundreds of years. Before snowfall finally extinguished the last smoldering embers, a total of 793,880 acres (3,213 km2), or 36 percent of Yellowstone was affected by fire including tens of millions of trees. About 25,000 people helped fight the fires and the total firefighting cost was $230 million in today’s dollars.
The whole experience peaked my interest in fires. I learned more about the many benefits including expanded wildlife habitats for animals like bears and rejuvenated forests. I also learned it was part of the natural cycle of life. It took some time but the park went back to their policy of allowing fires to burn unless people or buildings were at risk.
Twenty-five years later, we returned to Yellowstone this spring. We clearly remembered the fire and noticed plenty of evidence from that traumatic era and subsequent fires. We saw burned trees but we also saw new growth.
Seeing it all cemented a complete change in my thinking. Fire was not the end of the beauty in the forest or the start of a long delay before it returned. Fire created an opportunity to look for different kinds of beauty in burned-out areas. There is something appealing about a landscape in transformation.
The story of a wild forest doesn’t stop when the fires are raging. It keeps unfolding. It reminds me of a quote by Orson Welles, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
The forest’s stories are still unfolding, just as they should.