My article for the autumn issue of Distinctly Montana was due in July. I so love autumn and the heavenly riding opportunities during that time of year that I proposed an article entitled Falling in Love with Fall (see Distinctly Montana Fall 2017 and go to page 76). This is a familiar title to those of you who regularly read this magazine, as I used that same title for last October’s Dunrovin Ranch Lifestyle Magazine. In both of my renditions of Falling in Love with Fall, I spend a lot of time talking about Carlton Ridge and its carpets and cathedrals of gold. Clearly this is a special place for me.
All of the writing about Carlton Ridge occurred well before the Lolo Peak fire. The fire started on July 15, 2017, on the heavily forested and steep southwest side of Lolo Peak, miles away from Carlton Ridge. I barely gave the fire a second thought, occasionally noting the rather small plume of smoke rising from behind the peak. It quietly stayed in the remote areas of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness area for several weeks, and then it started to run, first to the north, threatening homes along Highway 12, then in mid-August, it started to run east and south. First it climbed over what is known as Lantern Ridge. Then on the night of August 18, it ran straight for Carlton Ridge.
The hills were ablaze. Our view of Lolo Peak was nothing but huge flames soaring into the sky, outlining our beautiful mountains. I wanted to cry. My husband and I rushed to set up our big irrigation system and every watering hose on the ranch to keep our ground wet so that the fist-sized embers that were raining down on us would find no fuel. For the next month, heavy smoke filled the Bitterroot Valley and hid the tops of the mountains from view.
What had happened to Carlton Ridge? I ached to know. I understand the role of fire in the forests of the Northern Rockies. It has been, and always will be, a part of the natural ecosystem. It clears old forest to make way for new, more productive growth. It sustains wildlife populations. Many of the trees and animals are specifically adapted to fire, such as ponderosa pine and black-backed woodpeckers. One of my favorite places to visit is the Great Burn Wilderness Study Area along the Montana and Idaho border. The “great burn” happened in 1910 and is the largest wildfire in the history of the United States. It swept through 3 million acres of forest in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana, killing 87 people in its fury. As a very young child, I remember my father taking us to the Great Burn and showing us the scars and devastation. Yet now, after over a hundred years have passed, it is magnificent. The forests are lush, the streams are clear and cold, the mountain lakes are blue and serene.
Oh, how I agonized. Part of me knows that fire is renewal. Part of me mourned the possible loss of my beloved landscape. Having these conflicting ideas and emotions swirl in my head left me even more anxious to see what had happened to Carlton Ridge. Finally, in almost an instant, the smoke cleared and our new reality appeared, and my heart rejoiced at the natural compromise that my eyes saw. Yes, part of Carlton Ridge was spared, and yes, part of it burned. Renewal plus the majesty of the old. What could be better? Like life on all fronts, it’s a blend—a composite forest with many edges that brings the old right up against the new. It shows us both the promise of tomorrow and the grandeur of the past. The old, twisted-and-tested-by-time hybrid larch trees that are unique to Carlton Ridge will sow their seeds, regenerate, and paint the mountain with lacy, fragile, new growth.
I can’t wait to see it. Wildflowers will be the first to arrive, covering the burnt forest floor with the long stalks of bright pink of fireweed (so aptly named!) and white bear grass. But I will also rejoice at seeing old friends, the twisted, gnarled, ancient trees that have stood silently through the harsh winters, the searing summer suns, and the heavy spring rains of decades, their bleached, broken trunks defiantly reaching for the skies.
Old and new, edges and transitions, they are the most interesting parts of life. They do belong together.
Lolo Peak – then and now. These two photos clearly expose the path of the 2017 Lolo Peak fire. Both were taken from our webcam – the top one in 2016 and the bottom one on October 3, 2017. The white snow seen through newly burned forest canopies tells the story.