One year has passed since lightning struck a tree and ignited a wildfire in the Bacon Rind area of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest near Big Sky.
Crews worked to manage the fire, not put it out, for three months as it burned more than 5,000 acres.
“We have to make the call whether we are going to immediately suppress that fire or manage that fire,” said Jeff Shanafelt, Custer-Gallatin National Forest west zone fire management officer.
The fire required crews with the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, Yellowstone National Park, and Gallatin County to work together.
“That first day, we flew in a crew,” Shanafelt said. “They got out on the ground and got us a good size up on the fire, told us what it was burning in.”
With big flames come big scars, still clearly visible to this day. As it burned, many, including Shanafelt, had to make bigger decisions.
“Our first objective is always public and firefighter safety,” Shanafelt said. “We don’t want to get the public hurt on anything and we certainly don’t want to injure or kill any of our firefighters, and we thought this one had a large potential for possibly hurting somebody if we tried to engage it directly.”
Meanwhile, Shanafelt and others like fire ecologist Todd Erdody explained why crews allowed it to burn.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of values at risk up there,” Shanafelt said. “We decided to not initially engage that fire right at the fire but to look at some larger management strategies.”
“We had a very good snowpack,” Erdody said. “June was very wet so the conditions were very right.”
Duncan Patten, an ecologist formerly of the University of Arizona, explained that while letting a fire burn can be upsetting, it also has benefits.
“Why aren’t they out there, fighting this fire? But the management decision is to let it burn. Research has been done on this. Prime burn forest is a maturing lodgepole pine with a spruce fir coming underneath it. That, if you want one to burn, that’s going to go,” Patten said.
“We protect the values at risk, whether that’s point protection around a place like Black Butte Ranch,” Shanafelt says. “Then, places where it is up in the wilderness, doing good stuff on the landscape, maybe helping out the white bark pine.”
Patten is able to pinpoint the origin of the fire as he had a front-row seat. He and his family were staying at Black Butte Ranch as the fire nearly burned in the backyard.
“She could hear the fire crackling up on the hill,” Patten said, referring to his daughter. “We were lucky.”
Patten remembers crews rushing to protect the ranch. His family, including his brother and sister who were also staying on the property, did not evacuate.
“If something happens, we are sort of here, isolated, and we had a crew of 40 that came in day after day and they came in behind all of these cabins and cleared a small fire break there, and then they went down by the river, went up the road and cleared a major fire break all the way up, higher up behind the ranch,” Patten said.
He and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest Service say the same thing.
“This is the classic example of the ladder effect, the small spruce fir coming up under the old mature dying lodgepole. A lot of them have died because of the beetle kill from a few years ago.”
“The fire is just playing its natural role in the wilderness,” Erdody added. “The fire did a lot of good in, kind of, I guess, clearing the trees out of those meadows that were kind of encroaching. The fire just did a great job of doing our work for us.”
Now, green is returning. The Bacon Rind Fire taught each crew a valuable lesson.
“By following the right science, modeling and cooperation with our partners, we can manage larger fires on the landscape under the right conditions,” Shanafelt said.
According to the Forest Service, the outlook for this year is promising. While that can change, there is no drought expected to help start something like the Bacon Rind Fire again in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.
-Reported by Cody Boyer/MTN News