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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Veteran of the Big Burn?

The Big Burn of 1910 is unknown to most Americans.

Writer Timothy Egan called it "the fire that saved America", and his book is a must-read.

The human survivors of the fire are long gone, but their descendants in Montana and Idaho know about it, and a few charred snags still stand as monuments to its devastation.

Flathead County, Montana was one of many satellite fires during the Big Burn of 1910, and thirty years later fire again struck the Sanko Creek area where Carl's cabin stands.

When Carl invited me to see "a tree with some history" I followed him down the hill to this veteran of fire.

"I cored several trees on my land", he said, "but for some reason I ignored this snag."

Obviously he regretted the oversight.

The tree was a ponderosa pine bearing a long triangular scar, but there was no sign of fire on its exterior.

The cavity on the other hand was heavily charred and seemed to have made a perfect chimney.  

During lean periods Kootenai and Salish people stripped bark of certain conifers and aspen to get to the tasty and protein-rich cambium, and this left a triangular scar.

Were we looking at the work of native Americans?

Recently, "culturally scarred trees" have been mapped and studied not far from here in Glacier National Park, but the scars on those trees all start above ground.

The tree had a story, but we couldn't cipher it.

We wanted to think we were looking at the work of native Americans.

If so, did their bark peeling make the old pine more vulberable to fire?

Or did a lightning strike prepare the tree to become a burning chimney in the Sanko Creek fire of 1930?

Was it the work of a single fire or a series of burns?

A dead tree can sure get a couple of old codgers thinking, but we had more questions than answers.

Anyway, I wanted to record this mystery in pixels, so I came back the next day, and found a chickaree had laid claim to the place.

It clucked and raised hell the whole time I was there.  


john said...

Having seen many, many lightning struck Ponderosa Pines along Arizona's Mogollon Rim, where I lived for 19 years, this tree looks like it was struck by lightning to me. The ridge above my home had the distinction, (true or not) of being the spot on earth with the highest rate of lightning strikes.
I can only attest to the fact that our nocturnal lightning shows were better than any fireworks display. They were also scary as hell.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. As a recent transplant to the Panhandle, I'd never heard of The Big Burn and am eager to read the book to learn a bit of local history.

Chas Clifton said...

I too live surrounded by lightning-struck ponderosas, but in my experience, the scars are usually of a constant width running down the trunk, not triangular toward the base.

Given slow rates of decay, maybe it did survive the Big Burn. Now where is that increment borer?

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks guys. The borer was loaned by the USFS. I've always wanted one, but they are "spensive".

randomtruth said...

What a terrific pondy. The external scar is healed over, meaning the tree lived for a while after it happened. With no external fire scars, that seems to suggest the stripping occurred independently, and later a lightning strike cored it, and burned through the weakened area from the inside out.

I have seen triangular burn scars from the base before on big old trees such as this, but the ones I saw looked quite different. A botany bud says they can happen when a fire burns a small, more flammable tree that's growing next to a tough giant. But those scars show burn on the outside, and the bark/cambium didn't seem to heal back completely, as if cauterized.