Wilderness Fire Ecology in the Bitterroot Mountains by Abra Kaiser
On September 28, 2012, our class had the opportunity to meet with the Dave Campbell, the District Ranger at the West River Ranger Station. He talked with us for a while about fire and his management philosophy. We talked about the fires that were burning, or had recently burned. One was a huge fire along the Salmon River. He talked about how that area has burned a few times in the last couple years, but most people don’t notice as they float down the river. This is because the fires that burn are high frequency (meaning the area burns often) and low intensity (meaning the fires are relatively small and burn the underbrush).
He shared his fire management philosophy with us, which is different than most District Rangers. He believes that wilderness areas should be kept open even if a fire is burning. This allows people to experience what it is like to be out in nature when there is a big fire burning. It also helps to dispel some of the misconceptions that fire is big bad and scary. Another way to dispel some of these notions would be to put web cameras up around the forest to show people what a forest fire looks like. I think this would be really cool.
After meeting with Mr. Campbell, we went to the west fork of the Bitterroot River to help gather data for a research project that focuses on fire history in the area. In 1991, a group of scientists went to the West Fork area and found an area with Ponderosa Pine and Douglass Fir trees that have been around since the early 1900’s. They took core samples from these trees to estimate their age and find out how often fires burned in the areas before fire management policy changed. They tagged these treed with aluminum tags. We went out and measured the DBH (Diameter at Breast Height) of these tagged trees to see how much they have grown in the last 20 years. This will give us an idea of how much the forest composition has changed over time. We looked at fire scars on the trees, and compared them to bark peels. The Native Americans in the area would cut off pieces of bark to get to the inner bark, which they would eat. This left a scar on the trees that can still be seen today. It was cool to see the differences between fire scars and the bark peels.
Fire scars are usually triangular in shape and go all the way to the ground (left). Bark peels are usually about a foot off the ground and are about the size of a man (right).
Fire in Wilderness by Avery Mickey
As usual our day started off at the motor pool. We didn’t take the usual big cars, swapping them for little baby cars. Celeb looked like he was driving a clown car, whereas Dona was the most stylish in a car that was a very interesting color chose for a university vehicle: metallic light blue. Maybe that was the university’s’ idea; it’s harder to speed when your car sticks out like a sour thumb. After an hour or so of driving we made it to Darby’s ranger station. There we meet with someone who has dedicated somewhere around the time of twenty years to the Forest Service. We were there to learn about fire, which was a good subject because it was obviously something that ranger Dave Campbell is passionate about. Of course, how could he not be, living and working in the Bitterroot National Forest? Fire is a key function of the forest, especially in this part of the world. One just needs to have looked at the sky in the past two months too see the smoke to know that’s true. Dave was very forthcoming, which can be a hard trait to find in government employees. He clamed this was because he was up for retirement, but I got the feeling he would have given his uncensored opinion regardless. Though the changing wildfire regulations of this year in particular were source of his frustration and ranting. Some higher up in the Forest Service it seems is feeling some political pressure to suppress fires, ignoring the undeniable fact that fire is part of the environment. Dave talked about his frustration with media and public still portraying and understanding fire as a bad thing. If it were up to him most trails would stay open for public during burning fires, for he sees it as just another wild experience. He discussed the fact that suppressing fires isn’t safe in the long run or a good use of taxpayer money. Earlier this summer they put out a fire in an area that is now (or was last Friday) overtaken by another fire. If they had been allowed to let the first fire burn the next fire would have had to burn around that area, and the whole ordeal would have cost less. We were all extremely appreciative that such a vibrant, opinionated ranger would sit down and talk to us on such a controversial issue.After our meeting with Dave we headed up to do some collect data collection on trees. Right off the path at the trailhead we turned and headed straight up a very steep hill off trail. Our goal was to find three hector tree plots that were set up in the 90’s. A researcher selected the plots and, through several different methods such as tree coring, deduced which trees he thought were alive in the 1900’s. He then tagged every one of those trees. We ventured up to the plots in hopes of finding every tree that was tagged, recording if it’s dead or alive, measuring it, and recording if the tree has a fire scar or Indian peel. Over time the hope is to be able to calculate the mortality rate of ponderosa pine forests. The data from these plots is going to prove very interesting because these particular plots are at the high edge of the ecological niche that ponderosas can live in, which has not been deeply studied before. My group stayed at the first plot. Our plot sat on a hillside that had at least a fifty-degree pitch, and was so covered in pine grass and pine needles that if we weren’t carful we could have slid all the way to the bottom. We had a hundred and sixty trees to find on this treacherous hillside, and I’m happy to say we found every one. After hours of trying to stay upright walking along at an angle, looking at every tree trunk (standing or rotting on the ground) for those little silver tags we skidded back down too the cars, gave Andrew back our measuring tapes, and drove home hoping that we provided some small service to the forests we cherish.