Standing on the Apgar beach looking at a tower of smoke rising aside Lake McDonald’s western shore, a wildfire meteorologist put a new spin on my sense of time.
“See how it’s shaping into a mushroom?” he said as the pyrocumulus cloud climbed thousands of feet in the air. “That’s releasing the same amount of energy as the atom bomb over Hiroshima. It’s just over a day instead of a millisecond.”
The energy was coming from the Robert fire in 2003. That was the biggest of six fires that year, which in total burned 13% of Glacier National Park. The beginning of the 21st century was the inflection point for fire frequency in much of the Rocky Mountain West. It also saw the overturning of the 20th century’s American paradigm of fire suppression.
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While most features of Glacier encompass time frames of thousands or millions of years, wildfire effects change in hours or even seconds. Perhaps because it’s on such a more human scope, we tend to relate to fire like a wayward pet — something to be trained, leashed, disciplined