Where Wildfires Roam
One place the Forest Service does allow fire to roam freely is the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in western Montana.
The Helen Creek drainage had three fires in a century, creating a patchwork of trees.

In this vast territory, the size of Lake Michigan, on the west face of the Rockies, fire is about as elusive as the grizzly bears it shares the landscape with. Dave Horner's Cessna is doing a great job of compressing the distance. At 1,200 feet above the ridges (the height smokejumpers drop from), the trees and the ground-down bedrock become more of a texture than a collection of individuals. Forester Allen Rowley refers to the older trees as "coarser," while younger stands muffle the earth like flannel. Erect-spikes of subalpine fir -- the platonic image of a Christmas tree -- are unmistakable against the unkempt bottle-brush looks of lodgepole pine and western larch.

Some fires merely tease the forest, burning little islands. Years later the line between young and old trees is but a subtle change in shades of green.

In contrast, three quite distinct textures blanket the Helen Creek area. The drainage first burned in the 1920s, leaving what's become light green islands of new subalpine fir and snags. Then much of the area burned again in 1994, reopening large patches of bare, brown ground. Sharp borders between the greens and brown dutifully follow the ridgetops and creekbeds.

Burning by Nature

The Bob's only significant fire of 1997 started above Damnation Creek in late July. We circle, scanning for smoke lying close to the ground on a cool day like today. Not a whiff; after smoldering for weeks, Damnation has burned out at a measly 85 acres. "Not nearly enough," Allen says. Damnation was projected to reach between 450 and 4,200 acres, depending on the wind and temperatures. As a "good" wildland fire, it fell far short.

This is the Forest Service's attempt to serve two masters: Nature and the American people, via the US Congress. As scientists, foresters embrace the value of fire in some habitats. As public servants, they face social and political pressures to suppress fire that frequently surpass the forces of nature.

Started in a single tree, the Damnation Creek fire fizzled out due to wet weather.

Rules and Regs

So making the decision to let a fire burn ends up being a lot harder than just going ahead and putting it out. Assuming that natural causes ignited it, a fire can do its thing only if it satisfies the following criteria: it can't cross the Wilderness boundary; it can't endanger human life or private property; the weather must be favorable; and there must be enough firefighting resources available to keep it under control if it does get out of hand.

Then there's the matter of smoke. People don't buy nice lakefront property to have their view obscured all summer, and the EPA wants to make clean air standards to protect human health even tougher. The day may soon come when nature is the biggest air polluter around here. And weird though it may sound, the laws that give the Forest Service charge of the woods may also make it responsible for the smoke. Allen says that by allowing relatively small fires to burn, along with setting some of their own, fire managers can avoid the really big ones and hopefully space out the smoke.

Allen takes an ultimately fatalistic approach to fire. In spite of decades of heroism, improved technology and ongoing millions in spending, "it's going to burn no matter what you do," he says.