The pines were roaring on the height,
The wind was moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
The blackened trees stand empty along ridges and in draws up and down the Bear Trap Canyon.
A casual observer can see the lines high on the grass hills on either side of the canyon where the fire either hit containment lines or a gust of wind blew it in another direction. One side of the line is yellow with cured late summer grass. The other side is brown and barren.
But even in this summer defined mainly by fire and drought and overwhelming lack of rain, it’s hard not to notice the green signs of life within the boundaries of the Bear Trap 2 Fire that burned hot and fast for nearly a week this June.
The Bear Trap Fire started on June 25 by a person playing with fireworks along the dirt road on the east side of the Madison River. When the sparks set the grass on fire, the wind in the canyon was gusting upward of 30 mph. The blaze quickly grew in size and was about 200 acres when fire crews first arrived.
The Bear Trap Canyon is rugged country. Juniper and mahogany choke the steep and craggy rock draws; Douglas firs eek out a rugged existence on hillsides and rock ledges. Patches of Poison Ivy blanket the riverbanks and rattlesnakes patrol the area, on the look out for a clumsy mouse or gopher.
When this landscape was set on fire, the flames greedily consumed grass, shrubs and trees fed by winds and drought. Flames shot hundreds of feet in the air, swirled along ridge tops and blew cinders high into the wind to expand the blaze.
On the second day of the fire, winds gusted to 70 mph and the temperatures soared into the 90s. Steve DiGiovanna, who was the incident commander the first two days of the fire described it this way: “Winds were now blowing a steady 45 mph, with gusts approaching 70 mph. The fire was moving north and there was no stopping it. For the next two and a half hours, the fire burned with lightning speed. It moved north through Madison County and into Gallatin County – a distance of more than four miles. Fire crews did their best to corral the fire but getting in front of it was out of the question.”
The Bear Trap Fire consumed one home and more than 15,000 acres. Madison County Sheriff Dave Schenk is still totaling damages from the fire, which include miles of fence and acres of critical grazing land. The suppression costs alone were more than $1.3 million.
And yet only a week or two after the blaze, something interesting began to happen. Spots of green began poking out of the black as nature began the slow process of reclaiming the burned ground.
Some of this new growth was native species of grasses and forbs. But along with the native plants came a host of noxious weeds that seemed poised for just an occasion. And it’s these noxious weeds that have land managers worried as they monitor the recovery of Bear Trap Fire.
“What vegetation that’s mostly coming out is (spotted) knapweed and (leafy) spurge,” said Pat Fosse, acting field manager at the Bureau of Land Management’s Dillon office.
The BLM is the agency that manages most of the Bear Trap Canyon Area and the agency has been battling noxious weeds in the area for years.
While fire is a natural process in southwest Montana, noxious weeds are not. They came mostly from Europe and have no natural predators here. They grow
readily in disturbed ground and their seeds can lie dormant for years waiting for the perfect opportunity to bloom. That is one reason officials are finding so many weeds.
In some places the Bear Trap Fire burned hot enough to kill the seeds that lay dormant – both native plants and noxious weeds. But in many areas, the fire
burned quickly leaving root systems intact and disturbing the ground enough to let the noxious weeds get a jump.
“There’s a lot of leafy spurge in there and it has really responded quickly, much faster than any of the desirable species,” said Dan Durham, conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Sheridan.
The leafy spurge has a long taproot and after the fire those plants were able to draw from moisture well below the ground to get a jump start on native plants needing moisture to grow again.
To fight the weeds, the BLM has been spraying the burned area weekly, pulling in their employees from around the region to help. If the agency can aggressively deal with the weeds now, it could end up being a better situation in the long run, Fosse said.
If the new crop of weeds are killed before they go to seed it could mean a net reduction in weeds from what was present before the fire.
“It can be a pretty good opportunity,” Fosse said. “Now that it burned and all you see is black soil, it’s real easy to see them (weeds) and get them now.”
The native range grasses will eventually come back okay, Durham said. But it may take until next spring to really see the regrowth since this summer has been so dry. However, the fire consumed a lot of rangeland for local ranchers, which will be tough.
The NRCS recommends resting burned pasture for at least two growing seasons to allow the plants to re-establish before grazing again.
“It’s not always easy to do that,” he said.
The NRCS is also concerned about soil erosion in the area, which will be a problem until native plants come back, Durham said.
“It’s a really harsh environment, so those grasses are really important for holding soil together and preventing erosion in the event of a downpour,” he said. “Already there’s been some soil moving around and gullies forming.”
The erosion potential makes fighting the weeds even more important. Noxious weeds can exacerbate erosion.
“Long term we want to control weeds because erosion rates are typically much higher in areas infested with weeds,” he said.