Ranger Diary: Fire Assignment


The media (and some firefighters) would have you believe that all wildfires are huge and catastrophic, requiring heroic efforts by men and machines to prevent flames from ravaging everything we hold dear. I have not had the fortune to be called to one of those fires. Mostly I get to work on ones like this, creeping around in the woods and occasionally causing excitement. Fires can be described by quantifiable attributes, such as flame length and rate of spread. The flame lengths in the photo are about two feet at most, and the rate of spread is maybe a few feet per day. The smoldering and creeping progresses through the organic litter on the forest floor(dry needles and twigs), now and then getting into a down log. As I walked through and around the High Lake fire, I found evidence of a past fire in partially burned logs lying on the ground. Many of the logs rotting into the soil probably fell after the previous fire. Some of them were much larger than trees currently growing in this stand–probably venerable old whitebark pines. My conclusion is that the fire that burns right now is the latest in a succession of periodic fires that renew the forest.

lodgepole cone

In a cool area, I found these lodgepole pine cones sprung open from the heat with their seeds lying on the receptive ground. Not far from here, I watched a Douglas squirrel climb a subalpine fir to harvest a cone then carry it down the tree and bound off to its secret cone cache. It made numerous trips–the industrious creature.

Late one afternoon we watched the fire bloom into the crowns of trees, and a spot fire started near the ridge.


Precipitous terrain separates the High Lake fire from Strawberry Lake, but a spark from the spot fire on the ridge could possibly roll down. Local land managers did not want fire in the valley because it is a popular destination for visitors. I wonder how they intend to keep fire out forever–someday it will burn. But not this day. Reinforcements arrived.


Zero Charlie Hotel dropped many buckets of water dipped from High Lake onto the ridge and drowned the flames. Then he disappeared into the sunset, leaving the air quiet after the clatter of rotors and roar of engines.


Strawberry Lake is safe for now although in the absence of cleansing fire, mountain pine beetle is beginning to ravage the lodgepole pines. They will die, creating fuel for the fire that will inevitably come.

Yesterday we went back to check the spot fire (dead and cold, half washed off the hill by thousands of gallons of water). Walked down through the burned area, fascinated as always by this process. I stopped to watch smoldering for thirty minutes. It’s combustion without flames, moving through the fuel without consuming it completely. Smoke rises in little wisps and the area is definitely hot. The rate of spread was two inches per hour, backing downhill into the upslope wind.

The Blue Mountains are in a long drought, and fuels are still very dry. Puffs of dust rise up around my boots with each step. Skin tightens over the bones of my face–I am windburned and parched. But the daylight hours grow shorter, and the burning period decreases a little each day. These are not the long midsummer days of July. Sometime in September, a big cold wet storm will come and even the smoldering can’t continue. Nobody knows exactly when fire season will end, only that it will end in the foreseeable future.


In spite of the dry, I found gentians poking blue fingers from the ground. Just as the purple grass widows are harbingers of spring in the sagebrush country, gentians are harbingers of autumn in the high country. Their inky blue appearance means that September will arrive tomorrow, and when the buds open it will be early fall.

Today was Day 10. Day 14 is for going home.

Agents of Change

This is the last installment about the Waptus trip. Being there stimulated some reflection on the topic of change.

I first went to Waptus Lake in 1991, and again in subsequent years. The usual trail crew stay is five days. For many years, the place was familiar and relatively unchanged. Each year is a little different for the trails–the number of big logs down, the severity of washouts. But it seemed stable.

In 2006, the big bridge across the river was gone. No one knows exactly what happened to it, but we speculate that a log jam took it out during a flood. The metal stringers are twisted and partially buried downstream. Pieces of decking appeared four miles away. The wilderness becomes more wild when you have to ford a swift river instead of crossing over a nice solid bridge.

Spinola Creek

Spinola Creek changed during that 2006 flood. The big cottonwood tree near our campsite fell across the creek, and has since captured more wood in a log jam. We used to have a nice cobble beach, and easy access to our bathing spots. Now the creek eats into the bank a little more each year, and the cobbles are moved. There are new gravel bars.

The flood was the first change. In July of 2007, a strong downdraft of wind swept down out of a thunderhead, and many lodgepole pines were uprooted. We went in the following week to find many across the trail and in our camp. It took three of us all of one day to cut 27 new trees from a quarter mile of trail.

Waptus River Trail between horse ford and lake

We first noticed a spruce budworm outbreak in the Middle Fork of the Teanaway around 2002. Within two years, the infestation appeared in the upper Waptus drainage, and in Spinola Creek. The Douglas-firs and true firs have been hard hit. The green of the forest turns to dull red, then gray. My own hypothesis is that the suppression of wildfire for 100 years has opened the way for a different agent of change. The jury is still out on the effects of global climate change on forests. Budworm has swept through the woods like a fire, but with different results.

Spruce budworm on cedar foliage

This little caterpillar, which dropped onto my shoulder as I hiked out, is about an inch long. There must be millions of them up in the trees. They hatch from eggs laid the previous summer, and chew their way through the new growth bursting from the buds of the trees. Their numbers are great enough to affect bird demographics. For years we never saw evening grosbeaks at our Spinola Creek camp. Now they are the most common bird, busily eating caterpillars. Out on the trail, if you stop and listen, you can hear the tiny pattering sound of frass (caterpillar poop) hitting the vine maple and thimbleberry leaves of the understory. Within a few weeks, the budworms will metamorphose into small grayish moths–millions of them laying eggs that will hatch next spring.

I observe all these changes, and am fascinated by them. A part of me craves the familiar. I want things to stay the same, because sameness makes me feel comfortable. But then I look at my own life. How much I have changed since the summer I was 31 years old and at Waptus for the first time. Much water has gone down the river, and maybe some of those water molecules have risen up off the ocean into clouds and returned as rain and snow over the mountains. Maybe. I imagine all of the cells in my body have changed since 1991–the only thing that is the same are the electrical impulses containing my memory. And even that has altered from how I first experienced it.

Fire scar on cedar, burned in the 30s or 40s

What is it about our humanity or culture that makes us so resistant to change? Why do we perceive change as disruptive and painful? Evidence is all around us that things do not stay the same. Much of the Waptus River drainage burned in the early part of the twentieth century. That’s why there are lodgepole pines at our campsite. They have short lives, only 80 to 100 years. Soon they will join the old logs decaying into the ground at their feet. When I see that cycle, I stop questioning. I have lived long enough now to know that there’s a bigger picture, one that I can accept. One that I can continue to learn from.