The New Fork Fire

In 2008, this fire burned through the Wind River Mountains, consuming thousands of acres of lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and Douglas fir. For the week I worked there as part of a wildland fire crew randomly assembled from a variety of national park employees, fee collectors, park rangers and trail workers, like me. 

The day I took this picture, the fire was making a sizable run, torching through that dense forest; it even jumped into the canopy for a while, shooting up hundred foot tall flame lengths and launching clouds of black and grey smoke into the blue sky. Eventually that fire cloud blocked out the sun.

The blaze started as an out of control campfire, but no one could have prevented the thick forest of the New Fork Drainage from burning, eventually. For nearly a century the Forest Service hadn't allowed for any wildfires to grow to maturity. And in the ten years leading up to that moment, mountain pine beetles, helped along by warming winters, had killed half the trees in the forest. So now the forests were cluttered with dead and down trees. Plus montane pine forests are meant to burn; it's an essential piece to their survival strategy.

Any random lightning strike could have done the same damage. But damage is not really the right word. Wildfire clears out years of biological clutter, like dropped leaves and piles of dead trees, resetting the ecological clock. By the following spring, edible morel mushrooms are already pushing up through the blackened soil. Wildflowers and berries aren't far behind.