ON A HOT AUGUST AFTERNOON LAST YEAR, I watched a forest being destroyed. A few days earlier, lightning had set off a small fire in Montana's Gallatin National Forest, north of Yellowstone. Called the Fridley Fire, it had burned quietly for a few days. But on the day I arrived, high winds fanned the flames and drove them into a long stretch of dry trees. Moving at one to two miles per hour, with flames as high as a 25-story building, the Fridley Fire devoured nearly 20,000 acres in just five hours.
That blaze was only one of 32 large wildfires burning in the West that week—and that was during an "average" summer for fires. In 2000, 92 big fires were raging at the season's peak, among them the mammoth Valley Complex (a "complex" is a group of fires) in western Montana, a conflagration that destroyed nearly 200,000 acres of forest—an area nearly one-third the size of Rhode Island.
Fires have always been a part of summer in the West: travelers on the Oregon Trail in the 1800's often complained about the haze of smoke. But big, hot fires are becoming increasingly common. From about 1930 through 1970, with the help of Smokey the Bear and aggressive new firefighting tactics, the U.S. Forest Service did much to tamp down fires. It was, however, a short-lived victory. Without fires to periodically eliminate young trees and brush, forests gradually became choked with thickets of what amounts to kindling. In such a situation, when a blaze starts, it quickly climbs from the ground to the treetops, causing destructive "crown fires" that leap from tree to tree.
Of course, many of these fires occur in or near national parks and wilderness areas that are popular with travelers. A few weeks before the Fridley Fire, lightning set off what became known as the Arthur Fire near the eastern border of Yellowstone. Soon after that, phones started to ring. "It was a pretty small fire, but people from back East were calling because they thought we were all shut down," says Chip Andrews, who manages the North Fork Anglers shop in Cody, Wyoming—about 50 miles from where the Arthur Fire ultimately burned through some 8,000 acres. "We were able to convince most of them that they should still come out. But we didn't get any walk-in traffic that week." Other tourist-related businesses also felt the pinch. "It was like a curtain going down," says Ted Blair, who runs three hotels in Cody. During the Arthur Fire's 10-day run, Blair estimates he lost betweem 300 and 400 bookings.
It's hard to argue that forest fires can't put a damper on your plans. But usually it takes a severe outbreak. In September 2001, a fire on the edge of Glacier National Park consumed more than 65,000 acres. Except for some backcountry campers, however, park visitors were virtually unaffected. Press accounts of the Arthur Fire exaggerated a blaze that, after one hot day, had largely quieted down. "The perception was that the whole place was being torched, but that was just not the case," says Marysue Costello, spokeswoman for the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.
Moreover, a fire in progress can actually be a point of interest. Although land managers will close off areas near fires that threaten to get out of control, many fires are fought in nearly full view of highways or hilltops. People who were in Jackson, Wyoming, last July were spectators to one of the greatest shows of aerial fire-retardant bombing ever staged, as two dozen bombers and helicopters worked to douse a 4,400-acre fire that threatened a subdivision of expensive homes. Near most large fires, instant "towns" appear within hours, capable of housing and feeding as many as 1,500 firefighters. While visitors aren't allowed to mill around these camps, in some cases a public affairs officer is amenable to giving a quick tour and a briefing on firefighting activities.
A visit to a fire's aftermath can be equally compelling. A burned forest is often a sepulchral place, where formerly lush trees stand as skinny, charred trunks. But most fires contain the beginnings of a new forest. Some types of trees—the lodgepole pines found in Yellowstone, for instance—are adapted to regrow rapidly after what foresters call a "stand-replacement" fire. Such fires occur every 100 to 200 years and seemingly wipe out everything, but in fact leave seeds and wildlife intact while killing harmful insects and eliminating dying trees. "To visit a burned area a year or so after a fire is to see natural processes at work," says Bob Summerfield, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. "Tree seedlings, wildflowers, wildlife—all recover remarkably quickly."
If fires are burning near your destination, call ahead to ask guides and outfitters how much impact the blazes are really having. National parks and forests, along with towns in the vicinity, post updates on the Web and often have telephone hot lines. Usually, you won't have to alter your plans. After all, in the West fires have become simply a fact of life. As Phil Perkins, a fire management officer with Yellowstone, points out, "What you're seeing in a fire is something that was common before the first European settlers arrived."
Douglas Gantenbein's book about forest fires, Season of Fire, will be published by Penguin Putnam in October.