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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

How Fire Shapes Glacier Park's Habitat

Glacier Park's habitat has been shaped by fires like the Thompson Fire, seen here Tuesday, August 11, 2015.
Courtesy Tony Bynum Photography
Glacier Park's habitat has been shaped by fires like the Thompson Fire, seen here Tuesday, August 11, 2015.

The Thompson Fire in southwest Glacier National Park only started Sunday, but quickly blew up to eclipse the other big fire that’s been burning in the park since July 21. Flathead Reporter Corin Cates-Carney reports on fire’s role in creating the habitat in Glacier National Park.This summer’s fire season in Glacier National Park is the biggest since 2006, when the Red Eagle Fire burned 34,000 acres in the east part of glacier. The latest estimate is that the Thompson fire has burned at least 11, 400 acres.

Ted Pettis is a life-long forester and the information officer for the Type-3 Management team fighting the Thompson fire in the south-central region of the park.
Pettis says when parts of the park burn it allows for the larger habitat resource to stay healthy.
"Fires burn in mosaics, and what I mean by that is this 11,000 acres burning sounds like 11,000 acres of devastation. Well, when the smoke clears and you see some photos, you’re going to see some huge patches of green timber, that haven’t even been touched and 10 feet away you might have a patch of grey ash and their just stubs left."
Pettis says fire isn’t all devastation, and just because the way Glacier Park looks in photos changes after a fire, doesn’t mean the land is destroyed.

"It definitely changes the habitat, and something that was good wolverine habitat is now good lynx habitat and vice-versa. These things are dynamic and just because you have a piece of old growth here that is perfect for pine marten, for example, doesn't mean that piece of habitat isn’t going to be 20 miles away 10 years from now."

The animals in the park are mobile, so when one place burns, Pettis says there are plenty of other places in the million acre park for them to live.

It’s rare for animals to get caught in a fire.

"As long as these fires burn in mosaics like I’ve witnessed on a number of occasions all across the western U.S., that habitat is going to move around, but there is always going to be a place for everybody."

Glacier Park Spokesperson Katie Liming says the land is pretty good at coming back after fires. But when a fire is big enough, the park sometimes brings in what's known as a burned area emergency response team. One of those teams is currently working the in Reynolds Creek fire area.

"They come in and bring in GIS (geographic information systems) specialists, they bring in hydrologists. And they bring in resources to help us assess any damage that is done to the habitat. Nature for the most part resets itself. But sometime we do have to go back and see if we can help nature out a little bit."

That help includes looking for soil erosion, and making sure native, not invasive, plants grow back in the burned landscape.

"Fire is a natural occurrence in the ecosystem," Ted Pettis says. "Just like gravity, just like the wind blows and everything else. It’s a natural part that we can’t change and we have to deal with it…."

It’s too soon to tell how exactly habits in Glacier Park have changed because of fires this season.

But, both Liming and Pettis say that change will be an important part of what defines Glacier.

The Glacier National Park website describes it as one of the most intact natural ecosystems in the lower 48 states, and says fire played a dominant role in creating the landscape's biological diversity. Without fire, Glacier Park’s character would be forever altered.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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