White trees stand on a ridgetop. For a moment I think the trees and surrounding ground are covered in fresh snow. The fall days have, however, been far too warm and dry for snow. It must, I think, be the light—which is now growing low beyond the hills—that has made the trees white. As I look at the trees, I realize they are neither ‘full’ nor conical as I would expect for spruce and Douglas fir. The white trees are thin trunks. They are skeletons stripped of foliage and branches.
After we round a bend in the river, we see smoke rise from the forested flank of the hill at the end of the river’s reach. There is a forest fire. I realize that the white trees on the ridge top have been burned—their lightness and high albedo is surely a consequence of having their bark burned away to reveal the more reflective surface of pale wood.
We stop opposite where the fire burns on a hillside across the river. Much of the hill’s high flank has burned. Most of the trees in the burn are now boughless and consist only of trunk. The high, burned flank looks open and airy even in the obscuring smoke. The active core of fire, which is neither broad nor raging, is about halfway down the hill. We cannot see flames, although the smoke that rises from the core glows orange. Even though the fire is across the river from us, we can hear, above the sound of the water, the pop of resinous wood as trees burn.
Fires in forests of the Selway drainage must occur almost annually. Perhaps most years many start. Most of these must be small—limited in acreage and days—and very few must be large. Few stretches of forest along the river, where I have walked, lack signs of fire. Blackened scars are common on the trunks of living trees and hollow bowls of burned-out trunks are hardly less common. Some drainages above the river consist of old black snags of trees and remain largely barren of undergrowth. These most devastating burns are startling. They demonstrate the awesome subtractive power of forest fires, but they provide also ecological opportunity.
I do not think about the ecology of fire in these natural communities as either good or bad; I can do that only when I add humans to the communities or to the broader set of ecological relationships. As I stand across the river from the fire today, I can feel safe from it—at least in a cautious manner. Yet I can also look responsibly ahead to realize the potential danger and force of a fire in a forest. I think of that danger sometimes when I travel deeply into a forest along some narrow, rocky road in the dry days of August.
We might have camped today at the end of the Selway road, but the smoke from the forest fire blows upriver through the campsite. Instead of remaining close to the fire, we drive back down the river a few miles, where we expect to be well beyond the reach of smoke and fire, even if the winds this night should shift.