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Fires and Forests

August 3, 2010

Fire season is officially here in the Rockies. Yesterday I read in the Billings Gazette of a blaze ignited in the Sapphire Mountains in western Montana. The fire is burning in a stand of dead and unhealthy lodgepole pines and fir trees. Such habitat is green, based on the color of the needles of the evergreen trees, but offers little in the way of sustenance for wildlife.

In the predominant Forest Service philosophy of “no fire is a good fire,” crews are battling the Sapphire blaze. To the extent that it threatens human habitation, containment seems warranted. Otherwise, the most predictable outcome of the blaze is a sickly forest seared by fire which, within a year, will benefit numerous wildlife species. Deer and elk will flock to the burn to munch the succulent grass and forbs that sprout next spring. As the standing dead trees begin to decay, downy and hairy woodpeckers will find plenty to eat beneath their crumbling bark and easily excavate cavities in the rotting trees in which to rear their young.

It’s fire season in Montana. Had our society understood the benefits of the natural fire cycle a century ago, we might not be plagued with a pine beetle epidemic, have so many large stands of decadent timber just waiting for ignition or spend so many millions of dollars on fire suppression. Natural landscapes need all natural phenomenon to maintain a balance. Including fires.

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