I lived with wildfire, mostly the smoke from far away wildfire, before moving to Montana. But when I moved to Missoula in 2012, wildfires became a part of my life every year. We hadn’t been in our home for merely a month when we were evacuated for the first time. Thankfully that was just a precaution, and all was fine, but that is not always the case and it brings reality home quickly.
Sadly, the reality now and for the future in many states, but especially the western states in our country, is we are faced with yearly fires. Inevitably, we all have similar thoughts. We want spring rain to keep the snowpack high and the mountains as wet as possible, but we also know that rain will support a high growth of underbrush and grasses that can encourage the fires when it dries out. We wonder when burn restrictions will start. When will the fires come this year? Will they be close, or will we just deal with smoke from far away fires? Here in Missoula, the summer of 2017 really got me thinking about the effects on our community when these fires are so close.
Whether we are aware of the effects or not, they are many.
There is a simple discomfort for many of us without air conditioners in mountain regions. Weeks, even months, when we cannot open our windows to let the cool night air into our homes without filling the house with unhealthy smoke.
There is the toll it takes physically on people with breathing issues, and on all of us who can’t get out to enjoy our normal amount of exercise and nature. After the smoke leaves, many of us recognize ongoing health issues even a year later. We will often notice how friend’s allergies seem to be worse than ever or our immune systems can’t seem to beat off the colds and flus of the following season; and these are the people who didn’t already start out with compromised lungs.
There is the emotional toll on those who mourn their favorite hiking areas as they burn, and on everyone as we listen to the news and worry about the people and animals in our community that are being evacuated and suffering. This physical, mental, and emotional suffering makes sense. The fire and smoke alert our limbic system to danger, so we live with a low level of anxiety and fear that we may not even acknowledge, and that combined with not getting enough physical and outdoor activity takes its toll.
This was the reasoning behind my desire to lead a hike for Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) through a freshly burned area. In June 2018, I was honored to co-lead a Montana Wilderness Association hike into the South Fork of Lolo Creek, near my town of Missoula, Montana. That area had been freshly burned in a forest fire in 2017.
Unfortunately, it is likely these regular fire seasons will continue, and as a mindfulness and meditation teacher, I wanted to lead a meditative hike through a burned area to support the people in our community. It was my hope that healing could begin by acknowledging the sadness, grief, or other emotions that occur during these wildfire seasons, and we may eventually be able to move into seeing the new possibilities of the forest.
We silently hiked into the South Fork of Lolo Creek, past tall, charred trees holding sentry over the area. The first thing we noticed was the dark black trees and the openness of the forest, destruction of what had been. Slowly, we began to see the wonder. The tree that was totally burned out and broken off, but that was already holding a fresh bird nest. The layer of trilliums and other flowers and greens already growing on the forest floor. The rushing beautiful creek still flowing loudly down the canyon. We began to see how this forest had changed and yet the forest seemed ok with the change.
After a silent hike in, we sat with the forest, with both the pain and rebirth that we were seeing around us. On our hike out we filled the trail with laughter. We pointed out to each other the birds, flowers, and other natural signs of hope.
That summer came full circle for me as I backpacked 40 miles in the Great Burn Wilderness Study Area – home of the historic wildfires of 1910 and many other fires since then. A stunning 100+ year-old reminder that fire is not new, it has long been a part of our landscape. It has threatened buildings and people and changed the landscape for generations. And yet, the forest keeps growing in its patient way. Our connection to this place, this landscape, remains the same, possibly even strengthening each time the forest and the communities around it go through the trauma of a forest fire together. I am always reminded of the short quote by Lao Tzu, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” This is the ultimate teaching the forest leaves us with each time it endures a fire and quietly continues on, no assistance needed.
As these wildfires continue to play into our years, I invite us to allow ourselves to grieve our favorite vistas, and yet to find joy in the new vistas that emerge.
For those that would like a look at the piece of history that is The Great Burn and how it affected how all forest fires are managed to this day, you might enjoy the book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan.