The first thing you notice in this fire-scarred forest is the color. Not long ago this square of land south of Yellowstone National Park was a monochrome of ash and burned pines. But last summer, shin-high seedlings and aspen shoots painted the ground an electric green. Purple fireweed and blood-red buffalo berries sprouted around blackened logs. Yellow arnicas danced in the breeze. Five years after 2016’s Berry fire chewed through 33 square miles of Wyoming, this slice of scorched earth was responding to fire as Rocky Mountain forests have for millennia: It had entered a season of rebirth.
Monica Turner was cataloging that recovery. On a sweltering July day, Turner, a professor of ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, shuffled along a line of tape she’d stretched 50 meters across the ground. She and a graduate student were counting every lodgepole pine seedling within a meter on either side. We were far enough from paved roads that there was no telling which forest inhabitants might be lurking—elk, deer, moose, wolves. The air was so hot I wondered fleetingly if the bear spray canister on Turner’s hip might explode.