As Lynn Kolund, the ranger for the Hell Canyon District of the Black Hills National Forest, walked through the blackened remains of the 546-acre Apple Fire Saturday, he reflected that as wildfires go, the Apple Fire was about as good as it gets.
No one was hurt. No structures were damaged beyond a few fence posts and a power pole that were scorched but not destroyed. Firefighters held the blaze behind their lines before achieving 100 percent containment Saturday evening. And all the flames will end up being good, not destructive, to the ecosystem in the southern Black Hills.
“A lot of resource benefit came out of this fire,” Kolund said. “It’ll be a much more productive area than it was.”
Burning over wilderness scorched by the Cicero Peak Fire two decades ago, the Apple Fire burned over grass, bushes and seedlings. But most of the Ponderosa pines in the area – even some of the very smallest, little more than seedlings – survived the fire.
“I believe that a lot of the trees in the Apple Fire area will survive,” said Gwen Lipp, the fire management officer for the southern Hills portion of the national forest. “There will be some trees that don’t make it, but for the most part, we’ll have a lot of surviving trees after the fire. In another year or two, things will look very green and will recover well.”
Also surviving were the root systems of most of the grasses and bushes. That means those plants can grow right back.
“I would not be surprised, if we got a rain or two in the next couple weeks, if we came out here and we already saw green grass growing,” Lipp said.
Such a positive outcome might not always be repeated in what’s shaping up to be a memorably intense wildfire season.
“It’s a thick, overgrown, dense Ponderosa pine forest that carpets the Black Hills,” said Frank Carroll, a longtime employee of the Forest Service who is now a private consultant on forestry issues after retiring last year.
On top of that, large swaths of trees in the forest have been killed by the mountain pine beetle, leaving them dried out and highly flammable.
“We have this conspiracy of events,” said Carroll. “We have the pine beetle. We have the forest that’s in trouble. And we have these drought conditions with abnormally high temperatures. All of those things together are conspiring to make this one of the most dangerous springs in memory.”
If a fire burns fiercer and hotter, it can leave a forest destroyed instead of refreshed. Trees will be consumed or felled instead of simply scorched. And the grass won’t spring right back after a rain.
“If you did have a fire that really sat and burned and really penetrated the soil, you’d have a lot longer recovery time,” said Lipp. “You might go a year or two without seeing a lot of the recovery.”
And those more severe fires could happen anywhere, at any time, as long as the weather stays dry and hot.
“We’ve been very lucky,” Carroll said. “It’s just absolute luck of the draw that the fires have not been in wilderness areas, but they’ve been in places that are sparsely populated.”
Most of the characteristics that made the land burned by the Apple Fire go up are shared around the Black Hills – hot, dry weather and built-up growth. Some are worse elsewhere – the Apple Fire area had almost no pine beetle presence, Kolund said, meaning no beetle-killed trees waiting to ignite.
The Apple Fire area also had the benefit of having burned two decades ago. That meant there were dead trees lying on the ground and not a lot of forest cover to keep the ground cool, but it also meant the forest wasn’t as thick, making it harder for flames to rise into the tops of the trees.
The biggest reason why forest south of Custer ignited instead of trees by Hill City, or Lead, or Newcastle, Wyo.? Pure chance that a lightning bolt happened to strike there during last Monday’s thunderstorm, Forest Service officials say.
“The reason this fire burned where it did is because that’s where the lightning struck,” Lipp said. “We could have a fire of this magnitude or larger anywhere else in the Black Hills National Forest right now.”
Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or firstname.lastname@example.org.