When Catastrophe isn’t the Worst

In 2014 and 2015 severe and unprecedented fires, propelled by an increasingly warm and dry climate, devastated parts of the Methow Valley. Homes burned to the ground, cattle herds demolished, memorials for fallen firefighters, and hillsides stained a shimmery black are just a few markers of how acutely this community was wounded by burning forests. People here are working valiantly to recover, but ecologically the issue of fire is not so black and green. 

Fire is a natural aspect of the landscape here, as much in its place as the ponderosa pines and the beaver dams. Though crispy burnt trees may appear utterly catastrophic, in the Methow forests there are no ecological winners and losers. At some of the burn sites in the Methow charred stands of trees may never regrow, but many here do not see this fully as a tragedy. While some species continue to suffer in the wake of the great burns, others are being given the opportunity to thrive. One such notable plant, the sagebrush, has been waiting in the wings at many locations, and fire was its cue to take over the stage, ushering in a new ecosystem. Animals, plants, and people who have depended on the forest must either adapt or move somewhere new, but for the species that rely on sagebrush fires are an opportunity to thrive. It is painful for many in the Methow to see the charred remnants of forests accompanied by encroaching sagebrush, but change is not devastating for all.