BASS CREEK — The strong smell of smoke still hangs in the air at the Bass Creek Recreation Area, but last week the blue skies were cloudless as Jo Christensen rode her Arabian, Pico through the trail system.
Christensen and Pico had been riding the trails since daybreak, reveling in the ability to play here once again after it had been off limits since mid-August due to the Lolo Peak fire. She’s a fisheries biologist for the Bitterroot National Forest, and understands that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem here. But knowing that, and seeing the impacts of it here, still makes her a little emotional.
“When I look at this place … this is where kids ride their first time when they’re 5, and this is where horses go when they’re old and arthritic, as their last place to ride,” she says slowly. “For horse people, who know of this looking and smelling and riding a certain way, it will look different; it looked different to me.”
Stevensville District Ranger Tami Sabol understands that some people will be shocked when they see the changes that took place here over the summer. In 2013, they took hundreds of truckloads of trees out of Bass Creek in order to enhance the tall stands of Ponderosa pines. After the Lolo Peak fire started July 15, firefighters worked along Highway 12 and Highway 93 burning off tall grasses and shrubs.
In most places, the burn-out operations were low-intensity. Still, they leave blackened earth behind. In a few places, the burnouts were hotter, running up hillsides and leaving dead trees. But overall, Sabol believes the operation was a success.
She picks up one of the many pine cones scattered on the forest floor and shakes seeds out of it. If a hot fire raced through here, chances are it would have burned those pinecones. Instead, the cones are providing the next generation of Ponderosas.
Sabol hopes people will look at the burned areas, and notice the green shoots of grass already popping through, their luminescence providing a stark contrast to the blackened pine needles. She also hopes when they look down they’ll see — and avoid — areas where stumps left over from the logging burned holes into the ground. And she hope people will look up as well, and notice the green crowns towering over the forest floor and some of the blackened trunks.
“I think the most of the trees will survive,” she said. “We’ll have some dead, some mortality up here but not even enough to do a salvage sale. I think by next spring it will be beautiful.”
Yet people also need to look around with a keen sense of situational awareness.
“Everybody should look out for dead trees and snags, and watch their footing on the ground, which can get slippery in the rain,” Sabol said. “They should enjoy their outdoor experience, but be comfortably uncomfortable."
Christensen echoes Sabol’s concerns about the need to be cautious when people return to the landscape, here and elsewhere after a wildfire.
“There were a few things on the trail that concern horse people — some water bars were dislodged, trees were down, brush is blocking a few trails,” she said. “The main thing for equestrians are some burned stumps next to the trail.
“We can ride in the dark because we know these trails so well, but there are holes where there didn’t used to be. So don’t come out and gallop through your first time.”
Sabol said that the trails will be cleared and repaired.
“We are pretty much done with the heavy equipment and grass seeding,” she said “We’ll do the trail work and watch what the trees do.”
In a drive around the recreation area with Warren Appelhans, the ranger district’s fire management officer, they stopped to look at a stand of shimmering aspens surrounded by three towering pines that burned in the fire — one of the many examples of how fire runs in a mosaic pattern, killing some trees yet leaving others untouched.
“The aspen trees will be fine because disturbing the roots helps them reproduce,” Sabol said.
“It’s considered a pioneering species,” Appelhans added. “Next spring when we get a lot of moisture, they won’t have anyone competing for it.”
Sabol said people are excited to return to the Bass Creek area, which reopened last Wednesday.
"We were getting 15 to 20 calls per day about opening it," Sabol said. "I think a lot of people are happy now."