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Ecologists: Fire can mean rebirth, not death

| Sunday, Sept. 5, 2004

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -- To satisfy our curiosity about the fires that afflicted this park last year, we spent a day hiking through the burned areas. One morning, we toured with the park's fire ecologists and fire managers, who described themselves as "pyromantics." Instead of focusing on trees that look like burned telephone poles, they see the proliferation of shrubs and wildflowers that spring to life after fire infuses nutrients into the soil, providing important food for deer, elk and a variety of other creatures.

They walk proudly among the baby lodgepole pines sprouting from serotinous cones, which release their seeds only with the intense heat of wildfires. The park, which would formerly stamp out all wildfires, now sees fire as natural and allows it to burn -- within reason.

Park managers also set planned fires, or prescribed burns, to control the buildup of fuel. It's not all that different from the longtime tradition of fire-setting by the Blackfeet, who were so named for the black ash on their moccasins. The Blackfeet wanted to clear trees crowding out berries and grassland that would attract game such as bison and deer.

Mitch Burgard, a prescribed-fire specialist, notes that last year's wildfires burned over areas that had been protected by park officials suppressing 264 separate fires since 1910.

"We are not going to stop wildfires, only postpone them," said Burgard, who grew up near the park. He misses some stands of trees that he knew as a boy but now sees it all quite differently. "We all grew up thinking that fire meant death, but we've learned to see it as rebirth."

As I hiked a park trail that had been severely burned last summer and marveled at the fresh flush of green bursting forth from the charred forest floor, I could see his point.

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