The word “wildfire” tends to be associated with destruction. Forests are burned, property is damaged and human lives are lost fighting wildland blazes. A wildfire is viewed as the enemy, something to be conquered, and understandably so when lives and homes are at risk. But historically, fire also has been used as a tool to benefit people. Burning areas of vegetation to improve hunting success and to stimulate new growth of edible plants was common practice by many groups of Native Americans. And today, fire may be used to control invasive plant species.
If we take people out of the equation and look at fire as a natural phenomenon, we see that it is a regular part of many landscapes around the world. When lightning strikes ignite dry vegetation and there is sufficient oxygen in the ambient air, a fire is born. Throw in things like wind and prolonged drought, and the duration and severity of a fire is intensified.
How does nature adapt to fire? Some tree species that survive fire well have dense bark, shed their lower branches, and retain high water content in their external structures. Others such as species of the genus Eucalyptus contain flammable oils that encourage fire and yet have hard leaves that resist heat and drought, ensuring their likelihood of survival over less-fire-tolerant species. And still others contain fire-resistant seeds that sprout after a fire to ensure species preservation. It is this last adaptation that I set out to photograph in Yellowstone National Park.
I arrived in winter, 15 years after the largest fires in the park’s history burned more than one-third of its forests, mainly lodgepole pine trees. Most lodgepole pines are fire-dependent, producing cones that open up only when subjected to the high temperatures of fire. The cones release their seeds onto a charred forest floor. With fresh ashes and newly exposed to light, the post-fire area is fertile ground for young seedlings. But how to make a photograph that conveys a message other than one of destruction? Looking at the scene before me, the criss-cross weave of fire-blackened trunks set against a canvas of snow created a stark abstract beauty. But there was a hidden beauty, too. In the gaps between the tall trunks, young trees were visible. Like the mythological phoenix rising from the ashes, the lodgepole pine trees grew from a burnt beginning.
By drawing viewers into this image with an interesting abstract, an opportunity presents itself to engage people to explore their perceptions of wildfire. At first glance, beauty trumps the scene. Looking closer, one sees that the forest has been destroyed by fire. Or has it? The forest has transformed into a different state, one of rebirth. Made possible by fire.