When their land goes up in smoke, a family's belief in the importance of wildfire is sorely tested. But as the earth springs back to life, they feel comforted by nature's resilience.
By Alan Kesselheim
Marypat and I had the same inspiration at Christmas two years ago. We each gave the other a journal to replace the one that burned to black ash when our 20 acres of Montana property was scorched by wildfire in August of 2003. Independently, we had fastened on these blank pages, with their latent promise, as a symbol of new beginnings.
The old journal had contained seven years of disjointed entries. Weather notes, dates the flowers bloomed, bird lists, the saga of our battle with a pack rat, kids' drawings, notes left by friends who camped there. A disparate, fragmentary collage of our interaction with this quiet patch of undeveloped central Montana landscape.
We kept it in one of several waterproof tin boxes at the campsite we used, along with kitchen utensils, a few tools, camp chairs. The fire was so hot that everything inside the boxes burned—field guides, the wooden handles of hammers, a box of colored pencils rendered into a pile of shiny lead sticks. Our cast-aluminum Dutch oven, made for cooking in coals, was warped and partially melted by the intensity of the heat.
The Hobble Fire, named for the Hobble-Diamond Ranch, where 16,000 acres of the 18,000-acre spread burned, started on August 8 from lightning strikes that hit northeast of Big Timber, Montana. Over the course of nine days the fire consumed almost 40,000 acres of lightly populated, semi-arid country.
In August of 2003, dry country indeed. We had been to the land a week before the fire started. The grasses were brittle, sharp as glass. No rain had fallen in more than two months. The flowers bloomed and quickly withered. The soil was a dry powder.
By coincidence, at the height of the fire, Marypat and I were leading a weeklong rafting trip on the nearby Yellowstone River. Flakes of ash fell like dark snow on our tents at night. We were beset by swarms of agitated wasps. For days we paddled in twilight gloom. The winds were wild and swirling, themselves like hungry, licking flames.
Our second night out we camped on an island downstream of Greycliff. Squalls of wind knocked the tents flat and blew down a dead cottonwood next to our cooking area. It felt like we were perched at the edge of a war zone, oddly disconnected from the fray but buffeted by conflict.
“I think our land is burning right now,” Marypat said.
She was wrong. Our land burned in a last gasp of fiery power, four days later, after the blaze had been declared contained. On Saturday, August 16, the winds came up again, furnace winds. Embers whipped to flame, and the Hobble Fire made one last run, roaring up the small stream at the bottom of our property and climbing the slope, consuming everything. Every ponderosa pine and juniper and cottonwood. Every blade of grass. Every prickly pear and yucca plant. Along with the wooden tent platform we'd built, our outhouse, the small pop-up trailer we had parked there. And our journal in its tin box.
A week later we went over. All the way in on the dirt road, our three kids, ages 8 to 11, were betting on the fate of the property. As we drove up the last hill, the betting was still split. Then, at the top, where we turn through the fence, a stricken silence. Before us, the land denuded, skeletal, blackened. Our land.
When we stepped from the car, ash five inches deep poofed around our legs like moondust. The acrid smell of fire stung our nostrils. Stunned, amazed, we wandered the familiar ground. To the giant ponderosa we'd all climbed, now prostrate, its roots burned out. To the juniper stump where we'd built a platform from which to watch sunsets. To the fire ring we'd sat around together on dozens of evenings.
Of the outhouse, nothing left but door hinges; where the tent platform had stood, neat rows of nails; of the pop-up trailer, a naked iron frame. Crisscrossed everywhere on the ground, the white-ash ghosts of trees that fell and burned.
The emotions hit on our way uphill after visiting the ancient, gnarled juniper we called the Grandmother Tree, now reduced to a few charcoal sticks. Marypat began to cry, then Sawyer. Silent, we got back into the car and drove home.
It is one thing to espouse the long view, as I do—to praise fire in nature, to recognize the renewing, if fearsome, force of flame. I believe all of this fervently, cerebrally. But it is quite another to stand in the face of it, exposed, senses assaulted, battered by memories.
We bought the property when Marypat was seven months pregnant with Ruby, our third child. The kids have grown up with this piece of geography, these trees, these birds, this campfire circle, the float of mountains on the skyline. It's where we come for relief from town, escape from the school and work routine, for solace and quietude and the balm of spaciousness. When the fire came through, we still had two years of loan payments left.
For landowners in remote pieces of western North America, fire flickers at the edge of consciousness. It isn't a matter of whether so much as when. Next month or next generation. Every fire season is another round of roulette. A lightning strike sparks the ground somewhere near. Most go out or burn briefly, but some are fed by drought and dry tinder and hot winds, and become immense outbursts, fickle and unstoppable as tornadoes. More than once we have watched flames across the Yellowstone River, seen billowing smoke plumes on the horizon, or read news reports of another lightning-caused blaze along Sweet Grass Creek.
A couple of weeks after our confrontation with fire on our land, we returned to clean things up, and we were shocked again by the change. Winds had swept the ground completely clean of ash. The burnt smell was still sharp, but diminished. Standing on the sandstone bluff, looking west, we had that same feeling of exposure and loss, but nestled in there too, the awareness of evolution, the realization that recovery was already afoot in its inexorable way.
Between visits it had rained. On the bare map of ground we could see where moisture lingered and erosion was likely. As we walked the hillside, we turned blackened tree trunks across the slope to impede runoff.
“Mom! Dad! Come over here,” Eli called. “Look!” There in the barren dirt, a scattered collection of green shoots, tender sprouts of grass poking through. A nearby yucca plant appeared completely scorched, but when we bent over it and looked close, a dark-green, swelling new center glowed like emerald.
Along the southern boundary, our ranch neighbor was busy rebuilding his fence line up the steep ravine. He moved about the work with a resilient, fatalistic force and a stubborn momentum borne out of the years of repeated disappointment and fickle disaster that is the lot of people tied to agriculture. The same way he goes about replanting after a hailstorm, taking care of livestock in a blizzard, drilling another round of seed in the face of a 10-year drought.
“I think it'll be real green come spring,” he said. “If we get moisture, of course. It could be real green.” Then he turned to his son-in-law for the next fence post.
In November Marypat went over again with a batch of seedling trees. Juniper and ponderosa, mostly. She filled jugs with 40 gallons of water to take along. The wind was howling that day, the weather raw and gray. She bent against it, winter hovering in the air, digging small holes in the annealed topsoil, tamping around the seedlings, pouring water. “I found a plant bulb,” she told me that night. “I don't know what it was, but it was alive, and I put it right back in the ground.”
Over the winter we researched wildfire and landscape recovery. Articles and Internet sites categorized degrees of burn, the threat of invasion by exotic weeds, the dangers of meddling too heavily with reseeding efforts. We discovered a government program that offered help with planting, except that it concentrated on reestablishing crops, not native grasses.
Our intent is to be as light as we can be on this property. Not to build, not to make roads, not to drill wells. To camp there, pitch tents, let the land work its effects on us, not the other way around. To weigh in suddenly, trying to dictate terms, would feel like a kind of betrayal. If I believe in the renewing power of flame, I have to believe in the inevitability of that renewal.
What is required of me is the very same patience and resilience required of seeds poised for spring. More than that, it requires the adaptability to change my point of reference, to see this not as ultimately destructive but as another phase in the evolution of this small scrap of terrain that happens to have my name on a deed of ownership.
Through winter, snowdrifts collect in the hollows, stark white in the sunlight. Precious moisture seeps into the ground, feeding the seeds and tubers and roots potent in the topsoil.
Another summer comes. Another fire season. A busy summer in our family life. Although we visit the property, plant more seedlings, note changes, it isn't until Labor Day that we can bring ourselves to go and camp there again.
We bring the journal. It is the first anniversary of our confrontation with the fire. There has been a recent blaze across the Yellowstone from us. A year out, the place feels bittersweet. There are native grasses filling in, yellow bursts of composite flowers, stands of clover and mustard. Nothing you'd call lush, but growth all the same, reassuring life.
The blackened trees are a woodpecker haven. Hairies drum in the hollow, stark forest. Nuthatches spiral over the charcoal bark. We make lists of it all in the pages from Christmas.
The kids find ways to play, as they always have—climbing up a sandstone outcrop, flinging themselves down slopes, finding the tracks of a coyote. We go for an evening walk to a high point. The Beartooths rise dark and monolithic to the south. The pastels of sunset lie thick as mist in the valley. The wide view is as beautiful as ever, the quiet as soothing, the coming night as beckoning.
Then a strange thing. As darkness filters in, the kids clamor for a campfire. Marypat and I look at each other. It is the obvious thing to do, the normal thing we always do, but the idea is viscerally shocking. Sparking a flame, here, again, in the midst of what fire brought us.
We go about gathering sticks, and with all the partially burned trees around, firewood is certainly not a problem. We reassemble the fire pit, the circle of rocks that corrals and focuses danger. We strike a match. The small flame catches in the pile of twigs, licks up, feeding and growing.
We circle around, our family, in this ancient pose. Ruby goes in search of the bag of marshmallows. The first stars punctuate the twilight. The kids argue briefly over the best sticks, then get after the business of dessert.
In a sudden moment of quiet, I hear a poorwill call in the valley.
Freelance writer Alan Kesselheim lives with his family in Bozeman, Montana.
© 2005 National Audubon Society
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