It’s too soon to be certain, but retired Forest Service researcher Steve Arno believes that his beloved alpine larch on Carlton Ridge survived this summer’s Lolo Peak fire.
Arno, a well-known Florence author, said he hasn’t been up to the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area since the 54,000-acre fire started. However, he said he can see the area fairly well from Highway 93 using strong binoculars and likes what he sees.
“There are two parts to the big alpine larch grove… and it’s the highlight of the area,” Arno said, adding that it’s on top of the ridge on the north face of the slope and extends down a few hundred feet in elevation. “The east end of it, which is probably 60 percent of it, appears to have survived because the snow is still clinging to the foliage. Alpine larch foliage is very delicate, so if it had been scorched – it’s not flammable, unlike pine and Doug fir – it appears that part is probably OK. It probably survived.”
The other 40 to 45 percent on the west end is an older, mixed stand that includes alpine larch, whitebark pine and spruce. The land on which they’re perched had more underbrush than the eastern edge, so it might have burned those trees.
“The fire intensity map indicates that burned more intensely,” Arno said. “From what I have seen of it, it appears that it doesn’t have the foliage on it to speak of, and I suspect there is a lot of mortality there.”
Boyd Hartwig with the Lolo National Forest said they haven’t been up to the Carlton Ridge area since the Lolo Peak fire passed through Carlton Ridge, and given the recent weather, chances are the earliest they’ll get up there is in the spring. Yet he’s cautiously optimistic that at least a large part of the stand remains.
“What I understand from the district is the burn pattern there was generally mosaic, rather than high severity stand replacing,” Hartwig said in an email. “So, there are likely islands or pockets that either did not burn or burned in moderate fire conditions.”
The Carlton Ridge Natural Resource area is home to fire-adapted, 500-year-old alpine larch, as well as much younger trees. At least 15 scientific studies used information gathered at Carlton Ridge, including one that used the alpine larch to help develop a 748-year reconstruction of average summer temperatures.
Arno calls the 900-acre area a “crown jewel” among the country’s natural research areas. It was established in 1987 to protect the important ecosystem, and along with the alpine larch includes hybrid larch – a mix of western and alpine larch.
A proposal a few years ago called for a prescribed burn in the hybrid area, but Arno said that wasn’t considered feasible due to access issues. During the Lolo Peak fire, crews performed “burnouts” or back burns in the Carlton Ridge area to reduce the fuels and keep the wildfire out of the tops of the trees.
“This fire was more severe than we would have liked, but it was going to happen sooner or later,” Arno said. “With this one, the results proved to be much better than what might well have happened with a fire that pushed through in extreme conditions, like in 1988 that burned in Yellowstone and almost overtook Darby.”