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Good fires

If you live in the GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem), you probably know your trees.  You need to, because most people burn wood here for heat.  And each type of wood burns different, with more or less heat and more or less ash.

Being a horticulturist, I know my trees.  But conifers are hard.  I’ve taken three conifer identification courses over the past 20 years.  There’s a place near Mt. Shasta in California that, within a one square mile area, there are 22 different varieties of conifers!

Luckily, there aren’t that many conifers out here.  In the Park, mostly what you’ll see are Lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta) because they grow on thin soils, which the park has because of all the volcanic activity.  Oddly enough, the dominant pine where I lived in California was also Pinus contorta, Shore Pine, but it looks nothing like a lodgepole.  Its twisted and shorter. Lodgepoles are called that because they’re nice and straight for using as a teepee shelter, or a lodge.Lodgepole pine Pinus contorta

Last year I was looking at some new Shore Pines around 8 or 9 years old that grew after the Point Reyes fire.  They were at least as tall or taller than the Lodgepoles in the Park from the ’88 fires.  Same Genus.  Same Species.  Chalk it up to much more water, esp. in the way of fog.  To distinguish the difference, they’ve added another ‘contorta’ at the end.Shore Pine.  Pinus contorta

In California, if we want a good slow burning wood, we use Oak of course, a hardwood.  But there’s no hardwoods out here, so my friend G___ who was a forester for 20 years, explained some of the differences.

First I went and got a permit to cut wood.  There’s plenty of beetle kill up our road towards the park, and every year more and more.  We’re doing the forest service a favor by cutting down the dead trees.  The main problem as I see it with the beetle kill is that there hasn’t been a good fire here in 100 years.  That and global warming as we don’t get the really extended cold temperatures in winter anymore that kill the overwintering eggs.  Massive amounts of beetle killed trees at the end of my valley

We went far enough up the road to find some lodgepole.  Mostly there’s Engelmann Spruce around my cabin.  That doesn’t burn very hot as there’s not much pitch in it.  The second best is Douglas Fir (not a real fir.  Pseudotsuga menziesii vs. Abies [fir]).  The one to get around here is the Lodgepole.  I suppose its because there’s lots of pitch.  My friend tells me that the old-timers say “Every fifth log, put in an aspen and that will clean your chimney.”

Lodgepoles are fire adapted pines.  They keep their cones tightly on the tree.  These cones need a really hot day (113 degrees) or a fire to release their seeds.   You can age a forest by the diversity of trees.  After a fire, of course you’ll have prime grassland as forage for wildlife.  Within the first 40-200 years, a dense canopy of lodgepoles develops.  As these trees die, or if there are fires, with gaps in the canopy, doug firs and spruces will grow with the increased moisture.  In the drier areas new lodgepoles will sprout up.

Last year we had a fire up the North Fork that burned for over a month.  That whole area is full of beetle kill pines.  As the forest service was closely monitoring it to make sure no structures burned, there was a tremendous amount of controversy over why they weren’t just dowsing it.  My neighbor kept saying “They plan to burn up this whole country.”  The Cody Enterprise  ran critically-toned articles (even though the town was benefitting from the influx of firefighters).  Sweetwater lodge after Gunbarrel fire

G___ had a good explanation for the public’s lack of understanding of the necessity for fire in the west.  “When your neighbor was born here, for instance, this country had already had natural fires and the landscape showed it.  Over time, with fire suppression, the people here came to feel that what they saw was natural.  Its not.”

If you live in the West, you better be fire adapted.  The West is fire.  If you buy in the forest, beware.  If you buy up a canyon, beware.  The trees, the plants, the animals and their needs are adapted to fire.Water snake after one month in burn area

The Gunbarrel Fire last year was just about to jump over the pass to my valley, when a freak snowstorm happened over labor day.  I heard the Forest Service was secretly hoping it would come this way.  Not to burn homes, but to help the wildlife.  The elk desperately need better quality grass; the beetle killed trees need to burn up; and the soils and animals need those forbs that only sprout after a fire.

I suppose as a botanist/horticulturist, I can’t help but say to myself when I hike in these woods:  ‘This place needs a good fire.”

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