Prescribed Burns

My last post described the twin events of spring in the forests of Idaho’s central mountains: blooming wildflowers and prescribed burns.

By pure happenstance, the Forest Service decided to do prescribed burns in my two favored locations for springtime runs and hikes with my dogs: in the forest just a mile above my house, and in a nearby area called Bear Basin with a well-developed trail system popular for mountain biking and hiking/running, as well as crosscountry skiing and snowshoeing (and for me, running) in winter.

My previous post included photos of some of the burned area in the forest above my house. On May 19th and 20th the boys and I went to Bear Basin for early-morning runs, right after four days of prescribed burns had occurred.

It was a bit eerie, seeing the recently burned areas, like moving through a post-apocalypse landscape with blackened tree trunks, logs turned to ash, burned shrubs and boulders next to greening grasses, bushes and wildflowers. Especially eerie because some stumps and logs were still burning and smoldering.

I’ve been told by friends who work in wildland firefighting for the Forest Service that one of the most fun jobs is setting prescribed fires. It’s a paradox: these are people dedicated to putting out forest fires, risking their lives to do so, but they also get an unapologetic thrill setting fires on purpose using a driptorch, which allows a steady stream of flaming fuel to be directed to the ground.

I thought I’d post a few more photos from those two runs through an area recently subjected to prescribed burning for those who are unfamiliar with such burns, providing a sense of how they change the landscape in the short term. Be assured, though, that – as I can attest, having seen previous prescribed burned areas – a few years post-burn, all one notices is the blackened bark on the lower portions of mature tree trunks. The foliage on the ground quickly recovers, wildflowers bloom, huckleberries ripen, and other than the occasional blackened log or stump, one wouldn’t know the area had been purposefully burned a few years earlier.

Camas flowers blooming among the sunflowers, just yards from a burned area. May 19, 2021.
Just past the burned area that bothered Conall I found the first shooting star of the season, proof that blooms and burns have found a way to co-exist.

The afternoon of May 19th a weather system moved in and Bear Basin received light snow mixed with rain. I decided to take Conall out there for another run the next morning, thinking (hoping) that the recent moisture would dampen the smoke and stump fires.

I don’t pretend to know how it’s decided this spot should burn and that spot shouldn’t. To me, it appears totally random, but I trust that there’s method to the “madness.”

Despite the moisture of the day and night before, Conall and I found several spots where stumps and roots were still burning or smoldering. At least the air was less smoky than the day before.

Smoldering roots and burn scars near the trail, May 20, 2021.
Flames give warning to stay on the trail. May 20, 2021.

The beautiful wildflowers blooming adjacent to the burn scars offer reminders that nature is both harsh and nurturing, that a burn this season can lead to renewed vigor in the foliage next season. I’ve learned that lodgepole pines – common in the forests of central Idaho – are one of the first trees to invade after a wildfire because its cones are protected by a seal of pitch that require fire or intense heat to release the seeds. Forest have evolved to co-exist with fire. Wildfires and by extension, controlled fires, are a necessary part of the natural landscape and ecology.

Larkspurs against a backdrop of burned grasses. May 20, 2021.
Camas flower, with sunflowers in the background, in a meadow between burned areas. May 20, 2021.

An aside: I discovered that the grasswidow flowers that are the subject my current cover photo – lovely purple wildflowers standing on stalks about five inches above the ground – did not like the snow-rain mix that arrived May 19th. When, on May 20th, Conall and I visited the slope where I took the cover photo on May 12th, all of the grasswidow blooms had shriveled and were almost invisible. It was sad to see, but I’m hopeful that when the temperatures rise again and the sun reappears, more blooms will appear, a rejuvenation of the meadow.

To thrive in the mountains, all of nature’s creations must be resilient.

12 thoughts on “Prescribed Burns”

    1. I agree. I try to avoid the smoke, but often it’s a choice of no exercise vs exercise with some exposure. I remind myself that having perfect lungs at age 100 isn’t my goal, that instead I prefer to live fully while I can 🙂

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  1. Beautiful images Rebecca. I can’t pretend to understand the science behind these prescribed burns. They are obviously needed to prevent future forest fires, though I can’t help but still feel a loss for the trees and foliage around. As you say however, “all of nature’s creations must be resilient.” And I am certain they are. Those pre-snow grasswidow blooms are gorgeous!

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    1. I have the same internal conflicting emotions, Shelle. But I do believe these prescribed burns are a net benefit, so I accept them, even though their initial impacts are hard to see.

      Grasswidows are beautiful! I’ve been trying to learn why/how they got that name, but so far no luck…

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  2. Beautiful photos — I love to see the shooting star. ❤ I can imagine fire-fighters like prescribed burns. I do, too, when I think of what they save, what they nature, and the seeds that cannot germinate without fire.

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  3. This encapsulates that cycle of life and the things that bloom in the unlikeliest of circumstances. I wrote a story once about the way that wildflowers bloomed in the rubble of bombs after the bombing of London in the blitz.

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  4. Great photos once again!
    We have burn piles, can’t be without them for instance when big trees go down in winter winds, ect – takes about 3 years to recover a burn area – don’t like them but a must have to clear areas and be fire safe. If we didn’t we eventually wouldn’t be able to walk in our forest anywhere!

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    1. Yes, the big burns – uncontrolled bushfires and wildfires – leave an apocalyptic landscape that is devastated for years, even decades. So tragic. Slowly the foliage, trees, and wildlife return – I see this in places I run through where the wildfire occurred in the 1990s, wildflowers and saplings taking root, followed by wildlife – but one can’t help but wonder if they’ll live long enough to see the landscape return to what it once was and how it should be.

      Just another reason I hope the prescribed/controlled burns succeed in their goal to slow the spread of devastating, uncontrolled wildfires. At least the impact of these small prescribed burns fade within a handful of years.

      Liked by 1 person

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