Hot smoke, cold smoke: Wildfires burn both ways on the heels of a destructive season in the Northwest

“What pictures will never give you is the smell of the smoke,” says Stefan Hood, a Forest Protection Technician and backcountry skier from Houston, British Columbia. “You’re smelling the organics of the soil burning, and you’re smelling trees [that] are on fire. That kind of smoke permeates everything. It permeates your clothes and your hair; everything ends up taking on that scent.”

For Hood, who has grown accustomed to picking soot boogers out of his nose, the shroud of smoke is a part of everyday life—this summer more than any other he’s experienced.

British Columbia has seen a very active fire season. “It mimics very much what the Northwest [U.S.] is experiencing, with some of the exceptions being that we are not experiencing the same loss of homes and lives,” Hood says.

Burn zone along the North Thompson River, British Columbia. Photo: Adam Levine

A burn zone along the North Thompson River, British Columbia. Photo: Alan Levine

Not all fires ruin towns, he says, noting that terrain plays a key role in how fire affects landscapes and communities. In fact, there are instances of burns doing what could be considered good, not just for ecosystems, but for skiing as well. “There is lots of land that is tenured up [leased by heli-skiing companies] and it burns,” Hood adds. “It is a desirable place to go skiing for subsequent years.”

Joe St. Onge, owner and operator of Hailey, Idaho-based Sun Valley Trekking, agrees. When fire burns the understory, St. Onge says, new backcountry zones appear in once inaccessible terrain. In 2013, the Beaver Creek burn ravaged the slopes of the Sawtooth Mountains near Sun Valley, Idaho, destroying Sun Valley Trekking’s twin Coyote Yurts in the process.

“From a skiing perspective, yeah, [the fire] has opened up a ton of skiing,” St. Onge says. “Specifically for north-facing burned slopes. Most of the north-facing slopes before the fire were densely treed and the best powder skiing is found on those slopes.”

The remains of Sun Valley Trekking's yurt after the Beaver Creek burn. Photo: Courtesy of Sun Valley Trekking

The remains of Sun Valley Trekking’s yurt after the Beaver Creek burn. Photo: Courtesy of Sun Valley Trekking

But there are other implications for backcountry skiing beyond new lines in terrain cleared by wildfire—negative implications.

“With the burn, we are finding that the wind is getting into places and hitting slopes it didn’t hit before,” St. Onge says. “I am seeing giant cornices on ridgelines that never used to have cornices before. There are fewer trees deflecting the wind and holding the snow.”

There are further effects fire can have on a winter environment, too—specifically regarding snowpack, which, says Adrian Harpold, a snow hydrology scientist from Reno, Nev., is impacted by burn episodes.

“The role of post-burn forests on snowpacks will depend on the climate, topography and burn severity,” Harpold says. “On one extreme would be warm climates and south-facing slopes. Here we would expect more energy available to melt the snowpack and potentially cause sporadic snowmelt during the winter, densifying the pack.”

“On the other extreme,” Harpold says, “would be cold sites—especially cloudless, cold nights—and north-facing slopes.” Here, he continues, melt may not change significantly but there might be increased vapor movement through the snowpack, possibly causing faceted snowpacks with lower density.

These sun-affected zones, Harpold suggests, experience a heating trend that will only get worse, while on colder, north-facing slopes there will be more evaporation occurring within the snowpack. This leads to the creation of facets and unstable layers.

The loss of groundcover vegetation is another factor that can impact the uniformity of the snowpack and even the slope of an affected hillside. Natural anchors—nonconformities—help limit avalanche propagation on steeper slopes and prevent landslides in rain events. But when this vegetation burns, avalanche variables can change.

“One of the most interesting things about fires and avalanches,” says Simon Trautman, an avalanche specialists with the U.S. Forest Service living in Hailey Idaho, “is that you can actually change the terrain through a landslide. You can make a start zone that before was maybe 28 degrees and barely steep enough to slide—you can turn it into a 36-degree scarp, and therefore you have a brand-new start zone that didn’t exist before.”

Trautman also reiterates trends St. Onge has seen with wind-slab layers occurring in burn zones due to the loss of vegetative protection. When nonconformities burn, and variables in snow-stability change, the predictability of avalanche danger changes, too.

Despite challenges that fire brings to Hood’s home in B.C. and St. Onge’s Idaho touring operation, both realize the upside. “Last year it was devastating to be up there after the fire, to smell the burn everywhere,” St. Onge says. “This year, the bloom is unbelievable. It is lush and coming back. It’s full of wildlife.”

“It impacts us a lot,” he adds. “It is a constant reminder about where we live.” And where and what we ski.

To learn more about wildfires, visit the U.S. Forest Service online.

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