Montana Outdoors

August 9, 2012

Little Thompson Peak (1)

The next few posts will be about a walk on August 3, 2012 on a trail to Little Thompson Peak in the McGregor – Thompson Roadless Area in western Montana. It is one of two 7,000 foot peaks in that area and is located just about in the middle of an area burned by the Chippy Creek Fire of 2007. That fire began in a valley to the northwest of the peaks on August 3, 2007 and during the following twenty-some days burned an area of the Lolo National Forest fifteen miles long and ten miles wide.

This is a photo of the 20,000 foot high smoke plume over the peaks taken on August 4, 2007 from Baldy Mountain about ten miles away to the south as the fire exploded up the northwest slopes of Cook Mountain and behind the Thompson peaks. Little Thompson peak is the one about in the center of the photo.

Chippy Creek fire of 2007

A forest is always a place of contrasts and one that has recently gone through a major fire is even more so. I will start this series simply with what seems to me to be one of the greatest contrasts of the trip: the morning sun on the drab silver and black fire-killed trees as the trail nears the peak…

Little Thompson Peak

and this little frost-covered plant growing just beside the trail, making its own contribution to Nature’s restoration of the forest.

Along the trail to the Thompson peaks

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53 Comments »

  1. It makes me think of a starfish.

    I can’t wait for the rest of these.

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    Comment by jomegat — August 9, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    • It does look like a starfish. The berries are huckleberries, a very low-growing variety probably Vaccinium caespitosum. hey are now growing across the burn in huge numbers.

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      Comment by montucky — August 9, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

      • I thought they looked like blueberries, but I wasn’t sure. Same genus anyhow!

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        Comment by jomegat — August 9, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

        • I am not familiar with wild blueberries here. I either haven’t encountered any or can’t tell the difference, but I can distinguish several different varieties of huckleberries.

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          Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

          • Isn’t “huckleberry” just a regional name for blueberries?

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            Comment by Kim — August 11, 2012 @ 7:14 am

            • I would suggest that “blueberry” is rather a regional name for Vaccinium caespitosum. The most common name seems to be dwarf bilberry. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/vaccae/all.html
              According to the USDA, it grows in NH as well, so I might be able to find some. 🙂

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              Comment by jomegat — August 11, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

            • @Kim – just found this wonderful news article that lays out the distinction between the two! It’s really interesting – and unless they’ve repealed the law, it’s even illegal to sell blueberries as huckleberries in Montana!

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              Comment by shoreacres — August 11, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

              • My nearest neighbor raises blueberries and is quite generous with them (in exchange for my sawing firewood for him) and they are delicious! Don’t taste at all like huckleberries though. For nearly half a century some of my relatives here tried all kinds of ways to raise huckleberries with no success at all. I have a personal theory about huckleberries that has to do with the position of snowbanks on the lee sides of tall ridges, something that would be difficult to duplicate for a domestic attempt at growing them.

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                Comment by montucky — August 11, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

                • In my experience – in Montana,anyway – blueberries are what you buy in the store (big, blue and hazy-coated), huckleberries are what you pick or buy at the Farmers Market (small purple and glossy).

                  Back east it’s a whole nother thing.

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                  Comment by Kim — August 12, 2012 @ 9:13 am

  2. It must have been a great fire. I just think if You have used in Your history “Controlled burn, prescribed burning, hazard reduction burning, and swailing “. In our history in Finland this was a good method for farmers in our history. Well, do You have any idea how long time it takes when Mother Nature repairs traces of fire?

    Last photo is showing a very interesting flower.

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    Comment by Sartenada — August 9, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

    • The U.S. Forest Service does some “controlled burns”, but their effects are miniscule compared to the tremendous size of the forests. It is effective only fairly close to developed areas. A badly burned area as for example this one is will take several hundreds of years to completely recover. Many of the tree species here have possible lifespans of 400 to 600 years. The natural forests, left alone, have a history of many small fires, leaving the rest of the forest relatively intact. In the year of 1910 there was a huge fire in this area which burned an area of three million acres (4,600 square miles). Soon after that the Forest Service was formed and their purpose was to suppress wildfires, which they have actively done ever since. This has proved to be a complete disaster for our forests because they have needed the continual small fires to remain healthy and now there are huge areas that are again in danger of another huge burn.

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

      • Good summary of the forest/fire relationship. But I wonder how recent climate changes would have affected the forests even if Smokey Bear hadn’t entered the picture after the 1910 fires. E.g., areas that burn may be too hot & dry to come back in trees now (without our help).

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        Comment by Kim — August 11, 2012 @ 7:22 am

        • From what I’ve seen, damaged forest areas recover much better and quicker from a major fire than from clear-cut logging, such as is used by Plumb Creek Timber. In a burn, there are plenty of small areas that escape most of the damage and even in the other areas there are left trees that were killed but not completely consumed. I have seen old clear-cut areas where everything was cot to the ground, leaving not even enough cover to shade new plants. In those areas even the springs and tiny streams are now gone. In the Thompson Peaks area which is the headwaters of the North Fork of the Little Thompson the springs are running well and I saw several very small streams that are running again.

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          Comment by montucky — August 11, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

          • A 1988 burn in our area has not grown any trees at all, despite the fact that several large seed trees survived the fire and that year was a spectacular year for pine seedlings everywhere else near the burn. I can only conclude that the climate has warmed in the past 80 years to the point where this now grassy hillside is no longer able to support tree seedlings to maturity.

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            Comment by Kim — August 12, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

  3. Great pics!

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    Comment by wordsfromanneli — August 9, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

  4. Great pictures, so important for folks to understand the importance of fire in the life cycle of forested areas. I saw the same kind of rejuvenation on lava fields in Hawaii. Nature is truly amazing and we are lucky we have folks like you that explore and bring us pictures of her work. Thank you!

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    Comment by anniespickns — August 10, 2012 @ 6:30 am

    • Yes it is very important for people to understand the necessity of fire for the health of our forests. We have created an immense problem for them already with the incessant suppression of every little fire, and the problem is growing at an exponential rate because of all of the development that is still occurring in the wildland – urban interface areas.

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

  5. The smoke behind the mountains make me think of volcanoes. I think one of the most interesting things to do would be to watch plants colonize a burned area. There’s a lot more going on than just fire weed, I’m sure.

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    Comment by New Hampshire Gardener — August 10, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    • It is a very interesting thing to witness and in this area there is plenty of areas to observe. Unfortunately our lifespans are long enough to take in only about a tenth of the complete process.

      Yes, fireweed is a very important plant in the start of the renovation process but there are many, many others. I am not much of a botanist or ecologist but I can distinguish dozens of plants that have established themselves in just this burn which in only 5 years old. Bear grass has already taken root in most of the area too and lots of berries, which seems to me to be an example of the wisdom of nature. We humans sometimes go into a burned area and plant some new trees. Nature plants ground cover which will shelter new seedlings, plants like bear grass which provides a perfect environment for small burrowing animals who cultivate the soil, flowers that attract pollinators who pollinate lots of different berries (huckleberries especially) which in turn feed the small animals and many of species of birds. The critters in return do the re-planting of the forest.

      Gratifyingly, among the bear grass and fireweed there are already thousands of small trees, firs and pines (especially lodgepole) which are already as tall as a foot and a half.

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

  6. Just beautiful… Was this a “controlled / uncontrolled burn”?

    That second image does look like a starfish — I love seeing threads of similarities throughout Nature.

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    Comment by FeyGirl — August 10, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    • This was not an intentional fire. I have heard that it was caused by some logging equipment in one small location in the valley of Thompson River and then just blew up into a major fire in a matter of hours.

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

  7. That first photo is astounding. You can count at least 5 individual fires, probably all lightning starts from the same storm. I’m guessing they all burned together within a matter of hours or days after the photo was taken.

    But at the time you shot the picture, it looks kindof like there’s a valley of erupting volcanoes behind the ridgeline.

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    Comment by Kim — August 10, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    • Actually, the fire started accidentally in one location from some logging equipment in the bottom end of Chippy Creek just behind and below the mountain at the far left in the photo (Cook Mountain) and aided by the wind rapidly swept upslope becoming a major fire in a matter of only hours. The photo was taken on only day two of the fire. the smoke plums does appear as though there were different fires, but they were only hot spots in different places along the one fire front. The fire quickly became so immense that it was creating its own weather and if you look closely at the smoke plume you can see an orange color several places in it where the super-heated air was re-burning smoke in the plume.

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

  8. Beautiful shots…destruction and renewal…the resilience of our natural world.

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    Comment by seekraz — August 10, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    • Yes, the area provides a good look at one of the natural cycles of the forest. Too bad we don’t have a long enough lifespan to be able to see all of it!

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  9. Looking forward to the rest of your shots. I, for one, am not a fire suppression advocate so I really welcome the life that you show in the aftermath.

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    Comment by Tammy — August 10, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    • I have fought forest fires with the Forest Service and also with a Rural Fire Department, but I am also not an advocate of suppressing all fires. In the summer of 1960 I was on a fire crew with the Forest Service which was sent to a fire deep in the Clearwater Forest of Idaho. The fire location was so remote that we had to hike in, 25 miles from the nearest road and even farther from any habitation, and spend about three weeks trying to control a single fire. I kept wondering “why?”.

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

  10. That is a scary sight! I know fire is a part of nature, but is has got to be one of the most violent parts. I kind of like the photo of the dead trees. It seems so strange to see the trail winding through them.

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    Comment by sandy — August 10, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    • A large fire like this appears incredibly violent, but I think only because we are not used to anything of that magnitude. I studied this one for many days from distances of 5 to 10 miles and took about 200 photos of it. What an incredible thing to witness! I will be posting many more photos of the area.

      Like

      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

  11. Let’s see, happy or sad… sad or happy… yes, both and also fearful yet secure in knowing there is a reason. Do you know what the little frost covered plant is?

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    Comment by kcjewel — August 10, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    • A large fire can be unsettling to see at times, and yet it is what it is, and it’s a very big part of the life of the natural forest. Indeed, there are many plants that depend on fire to be able to reproduce. For example, the cones of the Lodgepole Pine contain resins that require temperatures between 113 and 140 degrees (F) to melt the resin and release the seeds. In nature, only a forest fire can create that kind of temperatures within a tree’s crown and therefore this widespread tree requires fire for reproduction.

      Like

      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

  12. That’s very interesting about the Forest Service. I guess I didn’t realize they do more harm than good in the long run. Well, it figures, since they’re part of the government but how sad, really, that nature can’t take its course anymore.

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    Comment by Candace — August 10, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

    • I disagree with much that the Forest Service does, but at the same time they do many very good things. Personally I think there are adjustments that need to be made to the service but I think it is very necessary. I doubt at the moment though if the Forest Service will be able to survive their present situation of being just another huge Federal bureaucracy with all of the problems inherent in that.

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      Comment by montucky — August 10, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

  13. When forest fires burn so much property, the trails are essentially destroyed, too, right? I’ve never experienced anything like that, so I have no idea what happens. How do they rebuild the trails? Do they take the same direction? I’m just curious, because someone could get lost out there, ya know?

    Beautiful country

    Like

    Comment by Tricia — August 11, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    • The trails are always badly damaged in a major fire. They are usually repaired but not always. I hope this one will be. I was barely able to find the trail even though I had been over it before. Most of the trees bearing blaze marks were destroyed, but still a very few remained and the marks were discernible if you looked very closely. A few times it was possible to see the remains of old trail work, saw cuts, where the old down logs were not completely consumed by the fire. In a couple of places it was still possible to see the tread of the trail where it had been chipped out of the mountainside. And in many places the trail “corridors” could still be seen, even though the trees had been killed: they appeared like friendly old gray ghosts to someone used to seeing corridors. With all of these clues, the trail was still usable and can be renovated with a lot of work. The original routes of course are still valid and would be used again.

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      Comment by montucky — August 11, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

  14. Fires scare me more than hurricanes for sure. As for that little plant, that’s quite a throwaway line you offered up: “this little frost-covered plant…” Frost? No kidding!

    Like

    Comment by shoreacres — August 11, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    • I guess I’m more familiar with fires than hurricanes although I have no love for either one. They are a little bit similar though in that there are places more prone to heavy damage from either and those areas can be avoided.

      Frost? Yes. I stayed at the trail head the night before that hike and it was cold. There was light frost in some of the draws higher up the mountain before the sun came up.

      Like

      Comment by montucky — August 11, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

  15. That first shot…absolutely incredible. Reminds me of a hike I took to Harney Peak in western South Dakotoa. I do love a wide-open expanse.

    Like

    Comment by Emily — August 12, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    • I love the wide open spaces too. Fortunately, there are lots of them in this area.

      Like

      Comment by montucky — August 13, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

  16. Hi Montucky, Outstanding photograph of that burned forest. I also like the one with the billowing smoke in the distance. Fire is necessary for the health of forests and should not be considered bad unless the fire can’t be controlled well or is destructive to homes or communities or buildings. Nice post! Have the best day today!

    Like

    Comment by wildlifewatcher — August 13, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    • When I get some time I will post more photos of that area with more of the contrasts.

      Like

      Comment by montucky — August 13, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

  17. wonderful to see new life after a fire!

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    Comment by Tammie — August 13, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  18. Wow, that’s quite a fire. It’s good to see it coming back to life.

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    Comment by Fergiemoto — August 14, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    • Yes, it’s a good study. Very interesting and gratifying to see.

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      Comment by montucky — August 14, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

  19. There is something beyond beauty about a forest recovering from a fire. The smaller plants seem to almost dance in the sunlight and slowly the forest becomes alive again. It is almost as if we are witnessing a rebirth. Terrific photos Montucky, as the always are.

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    Comment by Wild_Bill — August 15, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    • It is indeed a rebirth, Bill. Seeing it first hand is an incredible experience and one for which I’m grateful, and yet humbled that I will live only long enough to see the first tiny piece of the rebuilding of the forest. It certainly does illustrate that the timeline with which the natural world works is a very long one and it is difficult for we temporal beings to fully comprehend.

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      Comment by montucky — August 16, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

  20. That’s an awesome smoke plume image. Nature is far, far larger than us…

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    Comment by Watching Seasons — August 25, 2012 @ 7:30 am

  21. Yes, a scene like that sure puts things into perspective, doesn’t it!

    Like

    Comment by montucky — August 25, 2012 @ 7:56 am


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