The fire—a small one by Minnesota standards—began on Good Friday, 1968 as a runaway from a trash burner on the west side of Highway 47 near the town of Ogilvie. A cold front was moving in and winds were gusting up to 20 knots out of the southwest. The flames moved in a classical cigar-shaped pattern, heading toward the northeast, leaping through winter-dried vegetation—aspen, dogwood, burr oak, swamp sedge and pale, crackling meadow grass. After the fire had extended itself more than a mile in that direction, the wind suddenly backed around to the east-southeast, and the flames spun on their heels like so many infantrymen obeying the order, "By the left flank, march."
By the time firefighters got the blaze under control six hours later, about 2,000 acres had been scorched. In some places the fire had had energy enough to consume the crowns of the trees it passed through. In other spots, thanks to low, marshy ground and the vagaries of the wind, it skipped through lightly, merely burning out dead litter and small stands of brush.
Now, 12 years later, the woods destroyed by the Ogilvie fire were prime game land. Pheasants cackled from the swamps. Snowshoe rabbits leaped out from underfoot in the tall, thick grass of the soggy fall meadows. A deer hunter emerged from the thick aspen growth up the road, dragging a husky, plump spike buck to his waiting pickup. And Lars, the indefatigable English setter, was on point once again. Rod Sando moved off the game trail toward the spot where Lars' bell had suddenly gone silent. A moment later came the chain-saw rip of ruffed-grouse wings, followed by the pow of Rod's over-and-under Browning 12 gauge. Another fat, red-phase grouse biddy for his game pocket.
"You couldn't ask for better cover than this," said Sando. "And it wouldn't be this way without that fire." Strange words, one might think, from a man who was once a smoke jumper in Montana and who only this year stepped down from his post as director of the Division of Forestry in Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. Yet Rodney W. Sando, 38, is an outspoken apostle of the use of fire in land and game management, and one of the most respected young foresters in the country to boot. For most of us who grew up under the baleful gaze of Smokey the Bear, Sando's pyrophilia sounds puzzling, if not shocking. Yet, listening to him, it makes perfect sense.
"The U.S. Forest Service may have overdone the Smokey bit," Sando says. "But it certainly was a good public-education gimmick in the aid of fire prevention. The sad thing is that most Americans now believe fire to be bad in every respect—a destroyer of habitat that can never be replaced, a killer of Bambi and his pals. In fact, the opposite is true. Very few large or mobile animals are killed even by the biggest forest fires. They can get out of the way, and, after all, they evolved through millions of years of natural fires. Sure, fire is deadly to small and slow creatures—insects, snakes, things like that. But its benefits in most cases outweigh those replaceable losses."
The benefits are many. Fire is nature's housecleaner, sweeping up the leaf and branch litter of the woods quickly and recycling the nutrients back into the soil. It kills old, diseased trees and encourages the rapid growth of new and different varieties. The aspen, one of the most beneficial plants from a wildlife food standpoint, responds to fire with a stunning surge of new sucker growth, providing not only fresh herbiage for game animals to browse on, but also thick, nearly impenetrable cover for wild mothers to rear their young. Some trees, like the jack pine that composes most of the "boreal forest" of the Lake States—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and western New York—actually need fire to reproduce themselves. The cones of the jack pine will lie dormant on the trees waiting for a fire to blaze through and activate their seeds. Other trees, like the burr oak, have adapted to fire in other ways. The thick bark of the burr oak preserves it from destruction by even severe fires; then, with its more punily armored competitors (pines, aspens, sugar and red maples, for example) wiped out by the blaze, the oak fills the gaps with more of its own kind.
Aldo Leopold, the great Wisconsin-born naturalist, was one of the first to speak out in modern times in defense of fire. In his book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold describes the ongoing, 20,000-year war between the prairie and the forest that has surged up and down the midsection of North America since the last glacier. Sometimes the boreal forest, with its cutting edge of hardwoods acting as cavalry followed by vast armies of conifers, marched far south into the prairie—jack pines once grew well below the present Wisconsin border. Then the prairie struck back with its major weapon: the tall-grass fire, frequent and fiercely intense. Without fire, Leopold argued, the continent would have been much less varied in its array of habitats. Ironically, he himself died of a heart attack at the age of 61 while helping a neighbor fight a grass fire in his beloved "Sand County."
The patch of woods Rod Sando and I hunted a few weeks ago near Ogilvie provided a good lesson in Leopoldian fire philosophy. The forest consisted mainly of 12-year-old aspens, about 20 feet tall, edged and pocketed with dense thickets of aspen suckers. Small stands of burr oak and maple interspersed the main growth, with here and there a patch of panicled (or gray) dogwood, its white, edible berries gleaming palely in the woodsy gloom. Grouseberry bushes varied the color scheme, bright red buttons against the gray. Apart from the frequent flush of grouse, testimony to the fecundity of the burn came from an abundance of deer sign, fox tracks and the sighting of at least half a dozen hunting hawks—rough-legged, red-tailed and marsh.
"Plenty of predators means plenty of eats," said Sando. "Look at those big holes in that dead aspen and tell me that pileated woodpeckers don't like forest fires."
A man who was nearly killed by the first forest fire he ever fought, Sando speaks almost touchingly of the "strange beauty" of an enormous blaze. "When you watch one from the air," he says, "it looks alive—like some big black and red and yellow animal surging through the woods. I jumped on nine fires out West and it was damned exciting. I've known the gasoline to boil in the tank of the chain saw I was using to fell a burning tree."
After three summer vacations of forest-fire fighting (one in California, two in Montana), Sando moved to Manitoba as a forest-fire research officer for the Canadian government. The experience gave him a chance to study truly large-scale fires—the province lost a million acres to the flames in 1961, and six years later Sando saw how well the burned areas had rejuvenated. Later, with the U.S. Forest Service and while working toward a doctorate in forestry at the University of Minnesota, he helped to devise programs involving the use of fire in managing woods and wildlife.
After hunting the Ogilvie area, Sando drove to the bleak, flat reaches of the Huntersville State Forest, where there had been a more recent burn. This was the true boreal forest. The burn, when we reached it, was huge and obvious: mile on mile of blackened trunks. But already a green carpet of jack-pine seedlings was sprouting, along with a spindly, seedtopped grass. "That's turkey-foot grass," said Sando, "a prairie grass that was rare here. Its seeds, like those of the jack pine, need fire to end their dormancy. Now it's coming back strong."
The weather conditions on Sept. 6, 1976, when the Huntersville Fire erupted, were almost identical to those of the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 that burned 160,000 acres and killed 418 people. Months of drought had preceded the blaze, accompanied by cloudless skies and abnormally high summer temperatures. It was so dry at Huntersville that the peat bogs in some parts of the region had dried out to a depth of 20 feet. The temperature was 95° on the day the fire broke out—again, from someone burning trash. A cold front was moving in, typically, from the southwest, with winds of 30 knots gusting up to 60.
"With that kind of wind and that kind of dry," said Sando, "this was a very high-energy fire. It shot off to the northeast at two miles an hour. You could have kept ahead of it at a brisk walking pace, but not for long, not through the woods, the blowdowns, the potholes and all. Spot fires were jumping out as far as half a mile ahead of it, ignited by flying sparks. The peat caught fire and burned off, two or three feet deep in spots. Pines were exploding like incendiary bombs. Then the wind turned to the northwest and the fire moved off in a new direction. Luckily, we were able to alert most of the people living in its path and no one was killed. One old couple—they must have been deaf—didn't hear our airborne loudspeakers and just kept pottering around while the fire blew past them, completely unaware that anything dangerous was going on.
"Most of the damage took place in the first 12 hours—25,000 acres burned to the ground—but it took months to extinguish the deep-burning peat. I walked through the burnt-over heart of the fire a few days later. Jack-pine seeds are pinkish in color, and the whole landscape was pink and gray and black, like something out of a science-fiction movie."
Hawks were perched on the wires along the highway, or circled, hunting over the new jack-pine growth. A flight of ducks—teal from the size of them—scooted across the gray sky, heading for potholes in the burnt-over peat bogs—potholes that had not been there before the fire. A deer hunter emerged from the woods and Sando stopped to ask if he'd seen anything.
"No bucks yet," the hunter said cheerfully, "but this morning I saw 20 does all in a bunch. Plenty of deer here, all right."
Sando smiled and drove on.