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August 26, 2008

Mountain Ablaze

Have you ever witnessed a natural disaster? What exactly is a natural disaster? According to dictionary.com, a natural disaster is any event or force of nature that has catastrophic consequences, such as avalanche, earthquake, flood, forest fire, hurricane, lightning, tornado, tsunami, and volcanic eruption. Catastrophic consequences. Catastrophic consequences to whom? To the animals, the landscape, the ecosystem? To people?

Yesterday a natural disaster that had catastrophic consequences such as a forest fire struck the mountain just above where I live. Firefighters haven't yet confirmed what started the fire, but it was big and raging.

Photo David Kockerhaer

Photo courtesy of ksl.com
The fire started at about noon yesterday and by the time that I came home from work, nearly the entire mountain beneath Lone Peak had been eaten by the rising flames. Many emotions ensued. Is my family okay? Neighbors? My house is in one of the lower parts of the valley, and though the fire started less than two miles from my home, the wind was blowing away from me and since fire burns in the upward direction, I knew that I was safe. But what about the people that lived even closer to the fire? Evacuations had been taking place all day for dozens of homes. The fire burned all night, and was still burning when I left for work in the morning.

Photo Kevin Nash
Luckily, no homes were damaged and no one was hurt. But the winds were howling, fueling the fire farther and farther out in nearly every direction. As I watched the black mass grow over the mountain I have lived beneath for nearly my entire life, I began thinking of all the trails that I frequent. Would the bridge on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail have to be rebuilt? That mountain is very sandy. There could be mudslides along that whole slope if rains come too soon. The "beauty" of the mountain has been sacrificed in some people's eyes, namely my mom, who displays her emotional reaction in her own blog. This natural disaster has, or could have, catastrophic consequences for humans, to be sure.

Photo Gary Hansen

Photo Jim Mcclintic
But what about the ecosystem of the mountain itself? Now I am no fire expert, but I do know that low intensity fires that don't burn too hot are extremely beneficial for forest ecosystems. Low intensity fires help clear dead underbrush and fallen trees and leave behind nutrient rich ash behind. This process is known as nutrient recycling and is good for replenishing the forest floor with vital nutrients that will be used by new plants beginning to grow back, replenishing food sources for animals. So the question is, how hot was this fire? Did it burn in such a way that a healthy ecosystem may emerge, or did it completely destroy everything in its path?

The forest will grow back no matter what, but a healthy ecosystem depends on nutrient recycling. And as far as ecosystems go, it may be that this fire is a good thing in the end. Forest fires, it would seem, are ultimately catastrophic for humans. But what about the consequences of other forces of nature? Are natural disasters only defined in terms of human reactions? Should they be defined any differently?

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