Amanda Monthei is a writer, podcast producer, and former wildland firefighter based in Bellingham, WA. Her work on flyfishing, wildfires, and occasionally a blend of the two has appeared in The Washington Post, Trout Magazine, The Flyfish Journal, Modern Huntsman, and the Patagonia Flyfish catalog, among others. When she’s not writing or talking about wildfire, she can be found skiing, attempting to surf, or getting rained on while not catching steelhead. 

Almost all of us know the feeling of rowing through a recent burn scar—sections characterized by blackened earth, new debris in the river, skeletal trees, a lingering smell of ash. Maybe you’ve noticed an increase in this experience over the last few years, as more wildfires impact the watersheds not only where we fish and play, but where we work, live and get our drinking water. 

Greys River, WY, 2018

The factors that contribute to modern wildfires, as well as their place in our landscapes and lives, can feel like a complicated slurry of nuance and -ologies, but it doesn’t have to be. The gist is straightforward: Most Western ecosystems need fire, but humans have spent the last 130 years getting very good at putting wildfires out, creating a “fire deficit” in many Western ecosystems. Where wildfires historically did the critical work of clearing underbrush and excess vegetation, a lack of wildfire has meant that when ignitions do occur—whether by accidental or natural causes—they have a tendency to burn more intensely than wildfires in the past would have. Mix in a little climate change and humans doing human things (accidentally or intentionally lighting things on fire) and you’ve got yourself a molotov cocktail of forests primed for potentially catastrophic wildfire. Still, wildfires can be positive for not only the land but for native fish—a fact long known by Indigenous tribes across North America and the world, many of which regularly lit (and continue to light!) fires to clear excess brush, clear trails and improve habitat for hunting. 

Wildfire is not inherently bad for us, the land or for fish. You know how everyone is obsessed with ice baths right now? I kind of like to think of wildfires as ice baths for native salmonids. Hear me out: We do resilience training (like ice baths) to introduce daily challenges into our day-to-day, in the hopes that we will be more adapted to the unexpected “disturbance events” in our own lives; in a similar way, a regular presence of natural disturbances (like fires, floods and other processes) forge some tough ass wild fish. These species have adapted to live in these environments, and regular disturbance events make them tougher and more well-suited to that specific environment. Gordie Reeves—a retired research fish ecologist who I spoke to for this piece for Wild Steelheaders United a few years ago—illustrated this concept well: 

“You look at these fish and what we see is they’re highly adapted to a highly dynamic landscape,” Reeves, who worked at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, OR prior to retirement, said. “We think of things always being stable and ideal, and we live in a world that is anything but. These fish have persisted in this world for a long time and they know how to adapt to it.”

Amanda out on the river in Colorado with the Flylords. Listen to her on our latest podcast episode now.

Wildfires also create some banging wildlife habitat—both on land and in waterways—by increasing woody debris and more streamside vegetation resulting from nutrient-rich post-fire soil. However, this all comes with at least one caveat, this being that native salmonids’ first line of defense against wildfires is to swim into unaffected tributaries, but in many cases, these escape routes have been cut off by human impediments. Again, to quote Reeves: 

“Events like fires are nothing new to them—the challenge is that we’ve truncated that process [by creating] dams, culverts, and other things that impede them finding these new habitats.” 

This is yet another reason connectivity (removing dams and improving fish passage) is a critical step not only for better habitat but for the overall resilience of our wild, native fish species. 

Prescribed fire in southern Washington

The important thing to remember in all of this is that wildfires are essential to landscapes across North America but a number of circumstances—namely, climate change and a history of fire suppression, logging and other mismanagement—have made them more catastrophic to humans than ever before. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely without agency here; there are a number of things that we (THAT’S YOU) can do to not only prevent wildfires but also help our communities mitigate the impacts of and prepare for wildfires. 

The very first thing we can all do is recognize our own power here. I’ll be honest: if you love a river, I think it’s time for you to consider that your responsibility to that river doesn’t start and end with keeping your fish wet or donating to Trout Unlimited once a year. Both of these things are important, of course, but we’re at a point where our love of these landscapes needs—like absolutely needs—to include advocating for or actually getting our hands dirty to keep those landscapes resilient to climate change and high-intensity wildfire. Wildfires that burn in dense forests under hot and dry conditions are not a good time; these are the fires that create scorched earth and soil that has the consistency of asphalt, often resulting in debris flows that can impact fish and clog rivers with impassable log, rock and debris jams. Severely burned areas do eventually spring back, but it’s not likely they will resemble their previous state anytime soon, nor in any of our lifetimes in some cases.

Facing wildfires like these (which is to say, potentially catastrophic to humans) is a two-fold process: preparing for the inevitability of wildfires by improving the landscape’s (and our own) ability to withstand them, and then doing our best to prevent human-caused wildfires. 

Support wildland firefighters by shopping our latest Flylords x Smokey collaboration.

Sounds a bit like Smokey Bear’s schtick, eh? The most basic action we can all take is to not do things that could cause a wildfire. *clap emoji* THIS SHOULD BE PRETTY EASY *clap emoji*. Here’s a great resource Flylords created with Fat Tire a few years ago, which provides a thorough list of things you shouldn’t do if you want to avoid starting wildfires. Here’s my own short list though: 

  1. Research burn bans and don’t have fires when it’s dumb to have fires (middle of August? No rain since June? Probably not a good time to have a fire). 
  2. Don’t leave chains dangling off your trailers (you would be alarmed how often wildfires are caused by trailer chains)
  3. I can’t believe we still have to say this but don’t throw cigarettes out your window! This should be obvious by now, and surely Fly Lords readers aren’t the guilty demographic here (right? RIGHT?) but it no less deserves a mention because cigarette fires are still happening on the side of highways with alarming frequency, and I can say from personal experience that it’s not fun to fight wildfires on the side of major highways. 
  4. Friends don’t let friends light fireworks in a drought. 
Working on a wildfire caused by a campfire.

Now that the obvious stuff is out of the way, there are many other ways you can contribute to watershed resilience in the face of increasingly catastrophic wildfires. For one, we need to continue advocating for improved connectivity, which is something many of us are already involved with. But if you need another retort in your toolbox for why we need to remove dams, allow me to provide you with one: to improve the ability of native fish to escape wildfires and not die senselessly in hot or overly-sedimented post-fire watersheds. The fish can handle these events—if we give them an opportunity to escape and come back once things have calmed down. 

This is a bit of a deeper cut, but in many communities across the West, there are opportunities for community members (that’s you!) to get involved in wildfire resilience activities like prescribed burning, “thinning” small trees and brush with chainsaws and other resilience work. The capacity of these organizations—called Prescribed Burn Associations—is still somewhat limited in many places, but they can always use more hands and engagement from folks like hunters, anglers, bikers and others who use the landscape for recreation. These organizations assist agencies and private landowners in improving the resilience of their land through fuels management practices like prescribed burning and thinning vegetation. If nothing else, getting involved in these organizations in your community can help you learn more about what wildfire resilience looks like, help you meet new folks in your area, and get you connected to other efforts that help mitigate wildfires in your community and adjacent watersheds.

Amanda during a break while digging hand line on the Cougar Creek Fire in Washington (near Leavenworth), 2018. “In this case we had the fire right at our backs so we were digging line and lighting a fire off of it as we dug, to reduce the fuel between us and the main fire. We got into a pretty dry part of the day and had to put the breaks on a bit (to not get too much intensity out of the fire we were starting, which is called a backburn), which is when a coworker snapped this photo of me.”

Above all, I think it’s important to become aware of wildfire’s presence in the landscapes you call home, and continue to learn about the importance of fire in these ecosystems. I personally love having the Gaia GPS wildfire filter toggled on, so that when I experience an obvious burn scar while driving/floating/biking, I can check my map app and see the footprint and name of the fire as well as all the other historical overlapping wildfires in that area. Look at this layer enough and you’ll soon realize that we live in lands shaped by fire, and that in many areas (like the Frank Church Wilderness, for one example) fire maintains a lasting, continuous legacy of keeping the land healthy and in balance. 

Finally, I’d recommend staying curious and really observing your surroundings next time you row through a burn: are there any green trees remaining? Is there new growth yet? How much of the drainage was impacted? Can you see how the fire burned—perhaps leaving one aspect blackened but the next nearly untouched? These are all ways to engage more thoughtfully in these essential landscape processes and become more aware of fire’s potential benefits, all while reframing your perspective to accept fire as an important process and not as something unanimously destructive. Being more thoughtful about how we interact with and think about wildfire is going to be essential as we all learn to more effectively live with wildfire. But also….put out your damn campfires. 

Amanda with a pair of elk sheds on the Dollar Ridge Fire in Utah in 2018. “We were on a quiet section of the fire that day, doing what we call “mop up” where you literally just put your hands all over the ground in burnt areas to make sure it’s not hot. Mop us is a critical part of making sure wildfires are contained, but it’s not always the funnest part of the job.”

With careful selection of 11 items to include in this Flylords x Smokey collection, we hope to not only educate our audience, but give back to the Forest Service. Each item is officially licensed and gives back a percentage of all purchases to prevent wildfires and protect our land. Shop the collection here. 

If you’re interested in learning more about wildfire, check out Amanda’s podcast Life with Firewhich explores our relationship with fire and how we can better coexist with it in the future. 


Fishing Etiquette: Wildfires and Water


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