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.