As we neared Stanley, Idaho, a hamlet carved by creeks and framed by mountains with spiky peaks, the landscape surrounding the winding highway on which we’d climbed 7,000 feet gave way from rugged canyon to flat expanse of grass speckled by lodgepole pine and aspen. We were on the northern edges of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, three hours from Boise, when scars from an old wildfire came into view.
My daughter, Flora, and I had been playing a makeshift game in which we pointed out the nature surrounding us, the sort of mindless thing you do to entertain a 5-year-old on a road trip. I see a deer, I see a birdie, I see snow, I see a purple flower, we called out.
“I see trees,” I said, pointing to a cluster of an unrecognizable species to our left, their crooked branches denuded by flames that had torched them.
“Those are not trees,” Flora retorted. “Trees have leaves!”
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Not always, I had learned. Several times over the past few months, I had hiked the Weaver Mountains in Central Arizona, retracing the steps of 19 firefighters killed in a raging wildfire sparked by a bolt of lightning in the summer of 2013. On those hikes, I walked past boulders cracked by the fire’s heat, stepping on charred dirt (fire burns soil, too) and the verdant grass that sprouted from it, as if life were thumbing its nose at the devastation.
The delicate, hopeful new growth belied the havoc that fires can wreak. Thirty-four firefighters died battling flames in the wild last year in the United States, and hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed this summer alone in the West (including around Pateros in north-central Washington), where high temperatures and severe drought have turned brush and forests into virtual tinderboxes.
Fire season has also stretched to a year-round affair, pushing the cost of containing wildfires into the billions. And wildfires have become such a potent issue that the White House started a campaign in August linking them to climate change in an effort to convince Congress, among others, that global warming can fuel larger fires.
But even if wildfires are worsening, ecologists still view them as part of a forest’s natural life cycle. Ninety-five percent of the fires that ignite in the wild are under control before most of us hear about them, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management told me. And fire ecologists point out that flames thin out overgrown landscapes, making it harder for the next fire to spread. (Fewer plants mean less fuel for the flames.)
“In burning the vegetation, fire rejuvenates the forest, and it creates space for new plants to grow, for seeds to pollinate,” said Penny Morgan, a professor of fire sciences at the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho.
“Fire just is,” Morgan said, “and we as people need to learn how to coexist with it, and to celebrate it.” So there I was, on a family trip to explore unspoiled nature, scorched earth and all.
I had picked an itinerary that would take us away from the highways as we moved toward our final destination, Ketchum, a ski resort town whose 400 miles of trails in the summer draw hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.
On Aug. 7, 2013, lightning sparked a fire named Beaver Creek, after the natural landmark closest to where it started. (This convention makes for some curious wildfire names — Hell Roaring Fire, after Hell Roaring Creek, in Idaho; Comet Fire, after Comet Peak, in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.)
Idaho’s Beaver Creek Fire ignited in the woods just west of Ketchum’s famous neighbor, Sun Valley, bringing a thick cloud of smoke over the area last summer and prompting many to evacuate. Homes burned, businesses closed and tourists left or canceled their trips, dooming any prospect of a bountiful summer season. Ash and debris drifted into the Big Wood River, renowned for its fly-fishing. Miles and miles of trails were closed because they had been burned out or because of the risk of erosion. Some were still closed when we traveled there in late June.
There was still plenty of land on which to hike, though.
My husband, Mike, and I had rented an SUV and left Boise midmorning, heading east on Highway 21, known as the “highway to heaven,” and when you’re on it, it’s easy to see why. The road cuts through the Boise National Forest, taking us from the sagebrush of Boise’s high-desert flora to the pine trees that are abundant on the mountains. The higher we climbed, the more spectacular the scenery became; at one point, creeks framed our drive. We turned down the music and opened the windows to hear the sound of rushing water.
Then we started noticing the unusual road signs. The first one that stuck out was just past a body of water named Moores Creek. On it was a picture of a house, a flame and the words, “Do you have defensible space?” Another, not far from the charred trees that had made my daughter skeptical, read “Don’t Burn When Windy.” These were new to us, even though we live in Arizona, another state where wildfires are common.
As we approached Lowman, an unincorporated community that the last census said is home to 42 people, we began to notice the erratic gaps in the thick forest, as if a drunken driver had taken a bulldozer for a ride. Most of the trees were ponderosa pines. Some had only their trunk and branches. Others looked like the perfectly conical Christmas trees you find for sale on street corners in December. But viewed from a distance, they created a beautiful mosaic: dark green, healthy, tall trees; light green baby trees; brown exposed soil; and black and gray burned tree remains.
Plaques at a scenic overlook just past Beaver Creek Summit explained what created this quilt: Lightning storms ignited 335 fires in the Boise and Payette national forests over eight days in 1989, eventually burning 46,000 acres. The flames sculpted a roundabout path, jumping over creeks named Huckleberry, Steep, Clear and Jackson — fire vanquishing water, as wildfires often do.
What we saw was nature at work rebuilding itself.
Not in the guidebooks
There’s plenty about fly-fishing and skiing in central Idaho in online travel guides, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything about the frequency, risks or rejuvenating potential of fires, even though it is a region where wildfires are undeniably a part of the natural cycle of life. Morgan, of the University of Idaho, told me that logs and boulders that roll onto streams after post-fire erosion often create pools that trout use as their habitat.
In Ketchum and Sun Valley, locals will tell you that smoke in the air is a common occurrence in August, the peak of summer travel season and of wildfire season in the West. It is often smoke that has drifted from fires burning in other states, like Oregon and Montana.
Greg Randolph, an Olympic cyclist who lives in Ketchum and is one of the forces behind Visit Sun Valley, the area’s marketing group, put it this way: “There’s a normal response to fire — it’s scary. But fire is just a part of living in mountains that are in the middle of the forest. Our skiing has benefited a lot because the fires we’ve had have cleared a lot of the underbrush and opened new trails. In the north slopes particularly, it can be almost 20 years of great ski conditions before the stuff grows in again.”
When you get to Ketchum, you don’t see any sign of past fires’ devastation; you have to look for it. My husband and I hired Olin Glenne, the owner of Sturtevants of Sun Valley, an impressive apparel-and-gear store on Ketchum’s Main Street, to serve as our guide on an excursion through fire-scarred trails.
We were staying at the storied Sun Valley Resort, where Ernest Hemingway finished “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in 1939. (He eventually relocated to Ketchum and is buried there.) The resort’s centerpiece is a quaint village of shops and restaurants. t
Olin (pronounced OO-lehn) led us on a moderately challenging 5-mile trek through Greenhorn Gulch on the west end of Ketchum to see an area burned during last year’s Beaver Creek Fire and also the Castle Rock Fire in 2007. Castle Rock torched almost 50,000 acres of the Sawtooth National Forest, which hugs the town, but its damage worked as a natural fire line that helped firefighters corral the Beaver Creek blaze.
“It’s like everything is connected,” Olin told me. “You have a fire that’s really bad and then really good because it stops another fire.”
There was a certain beauty to this harmonious clash of ending and beginning we were witnessing. We walked the trail mostly alone, sometimes in silence, lost in contemplation of fire and nature.
Fernanda Santos, chief of The New York Times Phoenix bureau, is writing a book about the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, one of the deadliest wildfires in United States history.