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.