SciSun: Carrying a Heavy Load   Leave a comment

The summer of 1910 – a time that to many of us seems ancient, but is really just a moment ago – was one of the driest anyone could remember. Less than average winter snow, combined with years of drought and drying winds, along with increased tree cutting leaving land thick with dried kindling and easily flammable grass and undergrowth, created the perfect conditions for a firestorm. All that was needed was a match, and early in July lightening strikes – aided by sparks produced by railroad locomotives steaming through the wilderness pulling logging trains – resulted in hundreds of fires throughout Idaho, Montana and Washington. Ultimately, within the 48 hours of August 20 and 21st, three million acres of forest were burning, fires rushing ahead faster than a horse can run and creating clouds of smoke that could be seen from New York, in what some describe as the most fierce, destructive and largest wildfire in history.

While this event was, by all accounts, the definition of ‘a perfect storm’, and many factors combined to result in this disaster, only due to the large amount of fuel – the fire load of dead trees, ‘waste’ products such as downed branches, half-cut logs and scrap material from the timber industry, and large areas stripped of trees and left for grass, shrubs, and other easily-ignited fuel, was ‘The Great Burn’ of 1910 possible. And worryingly, many of these same factors we’re seeing today in the Mountains and forests of our water-starved West.

Rangers and park employees call them ‘red trees’ which is a dignified description for groves of pine trees that should be green and lush, but are rather rust-red and brown, dying or dead from water stress and Western pine beetles, tiny native insects that burrow into tree bark to lay eggs and eat the tree from the inside, out. Healthy trees can prevent or heal damage by producing more pitch, or sap, to withstand beetle attacks (the beetles belong to the genus Dendroctonus which literally translates to ‘tree-killer’), but without sufficient water, there’s not enough moisture to produce pitch. While it’s natural for a few trees every year to wither from lack of water or nutrients, overcrowding, pest infestation or even fire, researchers estimate the current drought and it’s lasting effects are responsible for at least 12.5 million tree deaths in California alone, about 20 percent of the forests. On private, public, and even National Forest and Park lands – including Yosemite, Pinnacles and Sequoia National Parks and millions of acres of Forests managed by federal, state and private organizations – tree deaths have doubled over the past year, leaving areas of dry, matchstick-like standing trees; fallen trees and branches brittle as tinder; and open space that encourages readily-flammable grasses creating the potential for an explosive situation; literally, because in a fierce forest fire, dried trees can explode, sending sparks and cinders many yards or carried by the wind miles away, starting fires in other areas.

Smokey was a real bear that in 1950 was almost killed by widlfire.  He lived the remainder of his life as an angry, sad and troubled animal exploited into a marketing message to prevent forest fires.  Today he would be diagnosed with PTSD.

Smokey was a real bear that in 1950 was almost killed by widlfire. He lived the remainder of his life as an angry, sad and troubled animal exploited into a marketing message to prevent forest fires. Today he would be diagnosed with PTSD.


While well-intentioned, systematic fire suppression and programmed tree harvesting, developed around the beginning of the 20th century (and celebrated by Smokey the Bear beginning in the 1950’s – who, ironically, was himself a victim of forest fire), is now recognized as contributing to unhealthy and fire-prone forests and these practices have likely done more harm than good. In new young trees planted to replace mature, complex forests cleared through tree harvesting, growth tends to result in a uniform monoculture – forests of the same type, size and age, often planted in dense groves (the easier to plant and later, cut down), which results in weak, stressed trees vulnerable to beetle attack, fire damage and their uniformity actually increases the risk of high-intensity, difficult to control fires. Preventing or halting every wildfire removes one of natures most effective tools for clearing and re-establishing a healthy and restored environment. These low-intensity fires, known for decades as necessary to a balanced ecosystem, have only recently been recognized as not something to fight as an enemy, but more of a situation to be managed; while fire is frightening and dangerous and can easily go out of control, modern wildlands practices are learning to work with natural fires toward wildland restoration, rather than preventing every blaze and extinguishing every spark.

But as we enter the hot and dry summer months – in the high mountains, often punctuated by lightening storms – it may be too late. Many of the ingredients of the 1910 tragedy, sometimes titled a ‘1000 year event’, are in place today and other than vigilance and caution and lots of hard work, many firefighters and researchers of uneasy of what this year may bring. With, on average, a tree needing about 10 gallons of water a month for each inch of trunk diameter to remain healthy, our lack of snow, rain, and dwindling water supplies are not encouraging news. For those of us in the West – human, animal, and tree alike – it’s a heavy load to carry.


Michonne Says: I don’t like this story. It’s very scary. Fire comes and takes away all the things that are nice like flowers and trees and even sometimes friends which is very sad. And the story says maybe the men change things so fires can be even worse? Why would they want to make fire worse?

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