BIG SKY – A year has passed since lightning struck a tree, igniting 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,” says Jeff Shanafelt, Custer-Gallatin National Forest west zone fire management officer.
When you find yourself looking at a fire this large, this destructive, it was a tough call, indeed, including for firefighting crews with the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, Yellowstone National Park, and Gallatin County working together.
“That first day, we flew in a crew,” Shanafelt says. “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.”
We made our way up into the charred mountains off Highway 191.
Meanwhile, Shanafelt and others like fire ecologist Todd Erdody explained why crews, instead, allowed it to burn.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of values at risk up there,” Shanafelt says. “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.”
Also joining us was ecologist, formerly of the University of Arizona, Duncan Patten along with his wife.
“When you were letting this burn, that was really upsetting some people who were driving by or what have you,” Patten stated.
“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.”
“We protect the values at risk, whether that’s point protection around a place like Black Butte Ranch,” Shanafelt told MTN News. “Then, places where it is up in the wilderness, doing good stuff on the landscape, maybe helping out the whitebark pine.”
Out of this whole fire, Duncan points out that, up there in a small clearing up high but within sight of the road is where it all started. He knows this because he had a front-row seat.
A stop during our tour: Black Butte Ranch, where Patten and his family were staying as the fire burned nearly in his 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 his sister who also were 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 stated.
Patten 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,” Patten said. “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 stated. “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 says.
The US Forest Service says the outlook for this year is promising. While that can change, there is no drought expected to help start something like this again.
-Cody Boyer reporting for MTN News