Mountain High 

Forest-dwellers from Polebridge to Lost Trail are again reminded that Montana summers are hot and fire-prone, and all the slurry drops, Smokejumpers and blank checks in our nation won’t keep a remote, unbuffered structure from slipping readily into our region’s like-clockwork fire cycle.

It may be too late for some, but if your property is near a forest and you prefer it to remain uncharred, you need to clear out all combustable material within a 30-foot buffer zone. Duh. It ain’t rocket science, friends, but propane tanks, cedar shake roofs, stacks of firewood and trees lying between you and a burning forest will wick flames directly to your front door.

Some folks live on hurricane-prone coastlines, others on earthquake faults, and some live in a forest that’s either burned recently or will, quite likely, in the future. And while the ability to accurately forecast weather—and therefore fire—remains elusive, the Department of Agriculture publicly entered the long-term prediction game last week when Undersecretary Mark Rey announced that a massive, uncontrollable fire will sweep across the West in 2035. Rey’s statement must be considered within the context of his work history as a corporate timber lobbyist, and his choice of vocabulary when quantifying this catastrophic fire’s effect on the West is illustrative of his priorities. Instead of referring to how the fires will affect moose habitat, trout populations, local economies or even just the trees, Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth’s superior told the House Agriculture Committee that “2.1 billion metric tons of trees and plants” will burn catastrophically in 2035.

But forest fires and unrelenting sun are only a fraction of what’s scorching Montana these days. Yellowstone National Park closed part of the Norris Geyser Basin on July 22 when they realized that ground temperatures and thermal activity were on the rise. Soil temperatures in the park’s hottest and most active geothermal area reached 200 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to boil water at this high elevation.

Park officials tell us that there’s nothing to worry about, but if you research the history of the world’s first national park you’ll learn that Yellowstone’s boiling heart is referred to as a “supervolcano,” erupting at fairly consistent intervals every 600,000 years for the last few million years. It’s been 460,000 years since its most recent kablooey, and that eruption was a thousand times larger than Mount St. Helens, leaving a crater large enough to swallow Rhode Island.

That blast, as well as the park’s other 10,000 geysers, pools and mudpots, was fueled by a massive hydrothermal system heated by a thin “hot spot” in the Earth’s mantle. This immense body of magma keeps the water boiling, although officials are quick to point out that the new thermal activity does not necessarily indicate a resurgence in volcanic activity.

However, if this unsettled caldera were to blow tomorrow, the ensuing apocalypse would render the Milltown Dam, Kobe Bryant and the “war on terror” utterly irrelevant. A plume of poisonous gas and soot would rise up and cover much of our continent in ash, killing thousands or millions immediately. The sky would darken, cooling the Earth and dissolving agricultural production for years. Life as we know it might end. This has happened before; it will likely happen again.

But while few are predicting that this catastrophe will happen during our lifetimes, park scientists do agree that the 28-by-47-mile Yellowstone caldera is restless. For instance, after being inactive since 1989, Norris Basin’s long-dormant Porkchop Geyser started spewing steam and water just two weeks ago. There’s also a subterranean “dome” currently bubbling up beneath Yellowstone Lake, pushing the water south, leaving broad, sandy beaches on the northern shores and diminished beaches elsewhere.

What’s next? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: We’re travelling very quickly through an incompletely chartered void on a ball of unstable molten rock upon which combustable matter grows, and from time to time, burns.

Now is that time. Fire restrictions on Western Montana’s public lands have been upgraded to Stage II, just one level shy of full closure. This means you should just say no to fires or smoking anywhere with fire potential unless it is posted otherwise. And with no moisture predicted in the foreseeable future, it also means that you should get out to the mountains or rivers before you are denied access. If you have questions on closures or restrictions, you can find the latest updates at:

Low flows and lukewarm water are taxing fish populations across the state, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has asked anglers to limit fishing to cool mornings, especially within the Blackfoot River drainage. Hot summer waters hold less oxygen and cram fish into the deeper pools, so respectful anglers willingly hold off the line until early September, or whenever river flows and cooler temps allow a fairer chase. Call FWP at 542-5500 for more info.

Mars is now as close as it will get to Earth for another 60,000 years, and free telescopes atop Big Mountain’s summit provide a prime celestial view on August 1. Just bring chairs, blankets, flashlights, binoculars and $10 for a lift ticket—visible alcoholic beverages are banned. They’re also serving up dinner and a free astronomy slideshow, so call (406) 862-2900 to see the heavens.

Ronan’s Pioneer Days 5K Run begins at 9:30 on Saturday, August 2. Call 676-8300 for more info.

Join Rocky Mountaineer Julie Warner (543-6508) on a hike along the flat trail to the refreshing shower of Morrell Falls on August 3, or join the New Rocky Mountaineers’ Rick Hanners (892-8959) for a climb up the beautiful and technical Snowshoe Peak in the Cabinets on August 2–3.

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