Something is left after the fires of 2015

By Sandy Compton
Reader Contributor

For three quarters of a mile upstream from where the South Fork of Ross Creek enters the Middle Fork in the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness was a dark cathedral of a place, with a thick green overstory that closed out the sky—until the fires of 2015. Now, there is a view to the Melissa and Amanda Crags at the head of the drainage, as well as the ridge separating the Middle Fork and the North Fork. Where once was a roof held up by mighty columns, the place is now open to the heavens. But the pattern of damage is inconsistent, and the damage is not complete. Something is left, and that something is ultimately interesting.

The first Forest Service trail crew that hiked up Trail #142 west of the popular Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area after the fires last fall emailed the staff at Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness (FSPW) one picture with a seven-word caption: “It looks like a bomb went off.”

And it did. In fact, it still does, though nothing is smoking now as it was then. The burn is cold. The floor of the forest isn’t scorched black like it was last October, either. In fact, it’s insanely green with a profusion of maidenhair fern, devil’s club, wild ginger, pathfinder and lots and lots and lots of fireweed. There was a fire here, after all.

 Ross Creek Trail #142 was still smoldering when the USFS took this picture last September (note the trail crew member at right). USFS photo.

Ross Creek Trail #142 was still smoldering when the USFS took this picture last September (note the trail crew member at right). USFS photo.

Hiking up #142 is not quite the serene experience that it was before the damage done by the fires of 2015 in the West Cabinets. Great pieces of the forest are literally gone, those pieces often being huge Western red cedars that grew in the canyon bottom, trees 8 to 10 feet through and often over 130 feet tall—even with the tops broken out of them.

The missing monster cedars’ former sites are marked by splintered shells that bear much resemblance to each other in size and shape and texture. These remains are 8 to 12 feet tall, and appear to have exploded, which in essence they did.

The lower trunks of these former giants, like many large red cedars, consisted of a “rind” of bark and live wood wrapped around a central core of dry rot and ant nests. This punky stuff, which was actually helping to hold the tree up, burns like any dry tinder. The fire got into those cores and went crazy, accelerating up through the trunk like a chimney fire gone viral. At some point, what was left after that “stuffing” was gone could no longer hold up the heavy top and shattered. Huge chunks of tree went every which way, strewing the forest floor with cedar shards.

The biggest trees are gone.

But many trees are left. Many of the smaller cedars, the ones that are “only” two or three feet through and “only” 150 to 200 years old, survived, as did a selection of the other conifers growing there, as well as vine maple, Sitka alder, huckleberry, mefe and dozens—nay, hundreds—of other plant species.

There is something left, and that something will again one day be what it was until last September. Those trees left will prosper in the absence of the competition provided by the giants and become giants themselves. Admittedly that grove will never be the same in our lifetimes, and many people who have made trips along that trail have a right to grieve its passage, but there is something happening there already that will proceed into the future.

And we get to watch. After fires burned through much of the Scotchman Peaks last year, FSPW staff decided to establish a monitoring program that would take a long-term approach to recording the recovery. FSPW has located about a dozen relatively easy-to-get-to places along Highway 56 in Montana as well as trails along the east side of the Scotchman Peaks proposal from which fire damage can be seen. Over the next decade, FSPW staff and volunteers will return to established GPS waypoints to take pictures, establishing a photographic history of the forest’s initial recovery.

Some of these locations have been “adopted” already, but FSPW is seeking volunteers who would like to participating in what should, over time, be a fascinating project. For more information, write to [email protected]

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