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SUMMERS AFIRE

by Margaret Pettis, HUPC board member

August 1988: Ash dapples our pick-up truck. Sunsets are gilded. Night air carries a tinge of wood smoke. The wild country of Greater Yellowstone is burning. 150 miles as the crow flies to the southwest, we are linked physically and emotionally to that place we love.  How many little creatures suffer in the choking ash, dying of burned lungs or fur or flesh? What of unfledged birds?

August 2008: Twenty years ago fires of immense proportion lapped and roared through the forests of Yellowstone. Trees ignited in fury. So did public debate.

I visited the Park that fall, not as a backpacker but as one who respectfully visits the roadside spot where a loved one has died. For a week I camped, where still allowed by the Park, in places I had cherished, places pulling me back.

My journals are filled with sketches heavy with black wash of India ink. In forests I had wandered with backpack and bear bells, I saw boulders exposed like the carcasses of white bison in blackened pine forests. Smoke rose from hot spots as if in mockery of thermal steam. Rivers were no longer hidden in trees. Trees were no longer part of a forest. Forests were black, charred monuments to the vast carpet of life once there. The ashen wind sang a dirge.

It was a difficult visit. Backcountry places I had traveled in search of grizzly in spring, bugling elk in fall, and the palette of life in summer were raw and altered. The world seemed to have shifted.

Today regulations are tighter, visitors highly managed, backcountry closed, and remote meadow edges clogged by wolf watchers’ vehicles. Bittersweet it is.

While "the role of natural fire" has become a mantra, and I understand its vital place in the ecological scheme, the fury with which this long overdue "sweeping of the understory" took my beloved landscape forced me to consider the temporal nature of my short life on Earth. The Burning of Yellowstone was a catharsis I had not expected. As ancient trees fell in the “cataclysmic” wake of 150 fires, so will we. But life persists.

In July I crossed Emigrant Gap in the Sierras, descending ridge after smoky ridge into the thick, grey air where 1000 California fires raged in the northern Sacramento Valley, the northern Sierra, and the Coast Range deep into Big Sur, that magical country overlooking the lashing Pacific where I first tried backpacking in the last months of the '60s.

My first visit to Yosemite National Park was eery: Half Dome was cloaked in blue smoke, Yosemite Valley cupped a grey bisque below Glacier Point, and Bridal Veil Falls hung in a dreamy ribbon against dim cliffs. Choking smoke concealed one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

The previous summer, traveling by ferry to the island of Poros on what I imagined to be the route of Odysseus, waves of smoke hugged the coastline. On the Sicilian island of Vulcanello, the God of the Wind offered no contest to the rage of  Prometheus, whose flames raced across Thrace, Thessalonika, and the Peloponnesus. Human suffering was rampant (and murderous, when considering the hand political arson played.) Landscapes already under stress were scorched.

In my short three decades in Utah, I have watched fires burn on the Wasatch and in the Uintas. Flames borne of lightning are mesmerizing, but the power of the fire is something that strikes deep into our cores, forcing us to balance the value of fire's place in our world and the human desire to suppress it.

Since the Yellowstone fires, we have learned that other large fires burned there in earlier times; that most wildlife populations recovered from the summer of 1988’s burning of one-third of Yellowstone; that (before 2008 gas prices rose so sharply) visitor use has not fallen. We now face longer summers, a global climate change.

Incredible resources were employed to suppress the fires, and policies have tightened regarding “natural burn” in national parks. Yet it was the snow of Sept. 11, 1988 that suppressed Yellowstone fires, raging over an area that proved to be the driest in recorded history. Just as it was human habitation in forest country, forest practices, and patterns of drought that helped ignite the 1500 fires on California forests in August 1987 (and other western states), Yellowstone in 1988, the parched country of Greece in 2007, and California’s dry forests in 2008, Mother Nature extinguished what she began.

Defending buildings makes sense; robbing precious budgets aimed at controlling ORV abuses and grazing but thrown at fire suppression does not. Wild fire is part of our lives, in whatever way it sculpts “our wild familiar.”

Goshawk by M. Pettis


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