The 300,000-plus acres of Bitterroot National Forest affected by the fires of August burned in a patchy, mosaic fashion. Some areas burned much hotter than others; other areas firefighters expected to go up like a torch were barely affected.
In places, the fires burned so hot they left the soil “hydrophobic,” or water repellent, says Wayne Williams, a 26-year wildland firefighting veteran from Missoula. Why some areas burned hotter than others is just a matter of “dumb-ass luck,” he adds.
“It’s like anything else—it depends on conditions,” Williams explains. “Slopes, winds, low humidity, moisture depletion, the nature of the soil itself. There are a lot of things that can make soils burn hot. The conditions at the time and the place dictate severity. It’s very random.”
In most fire years, firefighters attempt to herd fires into old burns to stop or slow their spread. This fire season was no different, though the results were not what firefighters expected, Williams says. As the fires did spread into old burns, some slowed or stopped, while others continued to burn.
In short, this was a most unpredictable fire year.
“I’ve been a wildland firefighter since 1974, and I’ve never seen this before—and I thought I’d seen everything.”
Now that the fires are no longer the threat they were, the 1,078 firefighters left on the Bitterroot National Forest are concentrating their efforts on rehabilitating fire-scorched or-damaged areas.
First on the list is fixing the damage done by the miles of fireline created by both man and machine. The ground left bare by pulaski and dozer blade must be broken up and seeded. Hydrophobic soil, which results when the heat from the fires forms a gas, leaving waxy, bare ground, presents its own special problems to the rehabbers. That waxy layer must be broken up to accept the logs that will be contoured into the hillside to slow the momentum of the run-off.
Like the unpredictable nature of the fires, fireline rehabilitation, which is nearly complete, also was a bit unpredictable, Williams says. Some firelines the rehab team expected to find and fix didn’t exist at all, while workers unexpectedly stumbled across others not on the map. “It took a lot of scouting, but we found them all,” Williams notes.
This week, the rehab team will move on to phase two, by aerially reseeding 375 acres of public land near Sula Peak. Though winter’s not far off, the rehab team expects the native seed mix will germinate and become established before the snow flies.