In 1970, Forester Dave Aldrich and Fire Researcher Bob Mutch, working with Bitterroot National Forest supervisor Orville Daniels, initiated work on a revolutionary fire management plan for the White Cap drainage of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Based on their field work, the team recommended and, on August 17, 1972, Chief John McGuire approved, a plan to allow fires to burn without interference in the prescribed management area. The very next day, August 18, lightning ignited a small fire that the team allowed to burn until it extinguished itself – a major milestone in allowing fire to resume its natural place in the landscape.
Forty-five years later, on August 16-18, 2017, the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab hosted a reunion of many of those involved in the original White Cap project. Held in the Paradise Campground in the Bitterroot National Forest, more than 25 researchers, regional foresters, and original alumni of the White Cap study met to remember the events of the early 1970s, and reflect on advances in wilderness fire management. The highlight of the reunion was a barbecue and panel discussion featuring original White Cap participants, Daniels, Mutch, fuels expert Jim Brown, and three of the original field crew who worked with Mutch and Aldrich: Tim Beebe, Ron Milam, and Rick Oberheu (see photo, right, and page 1).
The reunion also served to launch a new study to re-measure fuels in the White Cap. With more than a thousand plots in the original study area, measured as often as three times from 1970 to 1974, FFS Research Ecologist Bob Keane, ALWRI Research Ecologist Carol Miller, and PNW Research Landscape Ecologist Paul Hessburg, Sr., and their crews have started the remeasurement of the White Cap stands to evaluate vegetation and fuel changes over more than 40 years of successful fire policy implementation. These researchers will use the original White Cap field data to create detailed fuels and vegetation GIS layers to represent fuel conditions in 1974, and augment these layers with annual fire severity maps from 1974 to 2014. Crews will use data-gathering techniques that ensure the ability to remeasure the same areas in the future.