Essay: After the Fire

Essay: After the Fire

A trip into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness finds fish and new life amid the ashes

  • By: John Holt
I can stare directly at the sun all day  It      s just a blood red ball up in the sky  The smoke and the never ending heat   it
There are times when fly-fishing takes on slightly bizarre, eerie shadings. Many of these occasions are out of kilter not because the taking of the fish is exceptionally easy or extremely difficult but because of other circumstances. Weird light, strange humans wandering around on the periphery of my vision, grizzly vibes humming electrically through the land. Today is one of those moments that seems to be a still-life study of some monumental truth that I can only glimpse along the outer boundaries of my perception. It's like I'm wearing a ball cap (Cubs, normally) and the bill is pulled down over my eyes so that all I can see is the ground directly beneath me and a little beyond. I know that there's more to the landscape but I can't glimpse it. It's frustrating and a touch maddening.

I'm casting to Yellowstone cutthroats in the wide oxbows and flats of the West Boulder River in the meadows of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, about four miles up from the trailhead. The trout eagerly grab a Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear nymph or languidly take a size 14 tan Elkhair Caddis. They fight in a series of gradually shorter runs before thrashing their heads side-to-side as they come to me. The cutthroats are all more than 12 inches-some more than 16, even. Fat, healthy and radiating the purest of colors-orange, emerald, crimson, black, white, gold, bronze. Natural perfection.

At first, my hike coursed through a healthy forest of pine and aspen; alders and willows lined the banks of the river. Ravens and magpies called among themselves. After crossing a wooden bridge over the West Boulder, the trail switch-backed read more »its way up several hundred feet before running along the side of a slope. The view was excellent.

Mountains, their upper reaches covered in fresh snow, crowded the horizon to the south, east and west. To the north, I could see far out into the Yellowstone Valley; farther north, the tops of the Crazies were visible, strings of light clouds clinging to their summits. Soon the meadows and the sparkling water of the West Boulder came into sight and I was filled with an eagerness to rig up and cast to the cutthroats that even from this height were making visible rise forms. I dropped down the steep trail to the valley and waded through the thick grasses to the bank.

Now it's October and the day is early autumn gorgeous under a cloudless sky, temperature in the 70s and the wind is warm and smells of water, the grass and distant snowfields. Everything seems as it should be; but, nevertheless, I feel something is odd and out of place.

The obvious frequently eludes me for a variety of marginally explainable reasons that aren't worth going into here, and the obvious in this case is the fact that the dense, deep-green pine forest that normally blankets the mountainsides surrounding the stream meadow is gone. In its place stand the blackened skeletons of thousands upon thousands of pine trees, the silent survivors of the fire that swept through in 2006, the previous year. I'm so focused on the stream, the rising fish and the remaining beauty of this spectacular high country that I've blocked the carnage from my awareness. Look the other way, Holt, and everything bad will go away. Childish self-absorption surfacing in clear air.

On August 25, 2006, lightning started the fire on the West Boulder River, about 30 miles north of Yellowstone National Park. It blazed away 32,000 acres of forest in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and adjacent lands. Wildlife and livestock were incinerated. Homes were lost. The air was clogged with soot and ash miles away in my hometown of Livingston. My yard looked grayish green from the fall of particulate.

Ginny Holt

When the smoldering areas blew up, the column of smoke resembled a mushroom cloud that rose far into the sky before being leveled out by the southwest wind that pushed the mess toward the Dakotas. At night the clouds often glowed with an orange internal fire reflecting the firestorm at their bases. Firefighters reported seeing tornados of flames ripping through the timber. Crown fires raced across the treetops.

"We are seeing fire behavior in the past week that no one has ever seen before," Bill Avey, a district ranger in Big Timber for the Gallatin National Forest, said at the time.

In 2006, there were wildfires burning everywhere-wildfires burning in the southwestern part of the state nearly 200 miles away over several mountain ranges; wildfires burning 300 miles away in the northwest corner of Montana; wildfires in Wyoming and Idaho. Much of the smoke, it seemed, converged in Livingston. When the air was still, everything in town looked like it was cloaked in singed fog.

My mom up in Whitefish, Montana, was close to the fires raging there. "It's nothing but smoke over here," she said. "First the floods of several years ago, now this every summer. What's next? Hordes of locusts? Last night was spooky. Around six it was like dusk. The smoke turned the sun into a dull, orange ball. I haven't seen the mountains in weeks. I can stare directly at the sun all day. It's just a blood-red ball up in the sky. The smoke and the never-ending heat-it's like hell."

Walls of flame and immense columns of smoke with firefighters in the foreground and residents fleeing in a chaotic cavalcade of pickups, vans and cars make for a great 30-second clip on the nightly network news. But it's a lot different when that crown fire racing through the treetops at more than 60 miles-an-hour is thundering down on your home. The scene is intoxicating on TV, but it's hell to live through.

Fire is Nature's catalyst to promote biological diversity and maintain healthy ecosystems. In spite of the destruction they bring, wildfires are a natural, rejuvenating force. Fire converts organic matter to mineral nutrients that plant species use to grow and thrive. Fires often destroy alien plants that compete with native species for nutrients and space, and remove undergrowth, which allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, thereby supporting the growth of native species.

Lodgepole pine and jack pine, for instance, depend on stand-replacement fires for their regeneration, as fire is necessary for their cones to open and their seeds to spread. The ashes that remain after the fire add nutrients to the soil, and fires control insect pests by killing off the older, diseased trees, while sparing younger, healthier ones. Burned trees provide habitat for nesting birds, homes for mammals and a nutrient base for new plants. Of the 146 rare, threatened or endangered plants in the Lower 48 states for which there is conclusive information on fire effects, 135 species (92 percent) benefit from fire or are found in fire-adapted ecosystems. Furthermore, by burning away underbrush, dead trees and other fuel, naturally occurring fires actually lower the likelihood of the epic, large-scale fires that we've seen in such years as 1988, 2000 and 2003.

I thought about the Beartooth fire, the firefighters and my mom as I walked through the smoky haze one stifling-hot afternoon. Smoke was all around me, burning my eyes, filling my lungs and obscuring my vision so that I couldn't see the Crazy Mountains only 20 miles away. The Yellowstone was as low as I'd ever seen it, caused by the drought and ranchers sucking water for yet another cut of hay. The nearby Shields and Musselshell rivers were less than a trickle for the same reasons and closed to fishing like others across the state.

Many of us were counting on the "August Singularity"-the first cool sweep of moisture wandering down from northern Canada-to be on schedule near the end of the month as it had in the past. It normally brings with it a couple days of light, steady rain, enough to cleanse the air and slow the fires until the snows of late September. When the rains finally came and extinguished the fires burning in Montana in the summer of 2006, more than 800,000 acres and more than 300 homes had burned. The economic toll was in the millions of dollars.

What was unusual was that the largest fires occurred east of the Continental Divide-the 191,000-acre Derby Mountain fire southeast of Big Timber, the Pine Ridge fire east of Billings that charred 121,210 acres, the Black Pulaski Complex fires that burned some 124,000 acres in central Montana and the Bundy Railroad fire south of Billings that burned more than 91,000 acres.

My friends and I spoke about the health, even survival, of native trout populations in affected drainages like the West Boulder. "How could anything live through all of this?" we asked. It was a good question and the following year would tell the story.

In the meadow I approach the stream and I am surprised and pleased that this small section of paradise is still intact a year after it burned. Changed, to be sure. Sadly missing are the greens of the pine forest and the fall brilliance of the copses of aspen, but it's still a viable system.

Grasshoppers leap with suicidal vehemence onto the water and the Yellowstones slurp them down with a carefree gluttony that only cutthroats exhibit. I can't resist casting to them over and over.

I tie on a Woolly Bugger and launch the thing out into the middle of a large bend in the river. It lands with a splashy plop and begins to sink. I watch as the pattern moves through the water column. Dozens of trout ride in on the Bugger. They flash and swirl around it. They make menacing gestures and bat at it with their heads and tails. Finally, a large one, maybe 18 inches, has had enough. White mouth wide open, the Yellowstone engulfs the Bugger and heads for cover, and I lift up on the rod quickly to set the hook.

The cutthroat is stunned and runs about in erratic circles for a minute before tiring and coming to shore. The colors of this one are intense almost to the level of fluorescence. The hook twists easily from its upper jaw. The fish quivers from one end of its body to the other and then shoots down to the depths and vanishes from my sight. This last cutthroats is enough. I'm finished.

I look around and take in the still very much alive scene. A couple of late-season Western Tiger Swallowtail butterflies glide and loop above the grass. A group of mallards swoops low overhead, wings out and arched for landing. The drakes' emerald necks glisten in the sunlight. The mountains rising everywhere are majestic. The sky holds a few clouds whose shadows glide across the ground. And I realize that next spring will bring a fresh wave of bright-green plants, including the beginnings of the forest that will one day light up, again, the countryside in the meadows of the West Boulder River.

John Holt lives in Livingston, Montana, with his wife, photographer Ginny Holt. Their next book will be Yellowstone Drift-Floating the Past in Real Time to be published by AK Press in autumn 2008.