Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Middle Fork of the Applegate River & The Abney Fire

The Middle Fork of the Applegate River and Cook and Green Creek with the Siskiyou Crest rising above.
The Middle Fork of the Applegate River is a spectacular canyon of old, fire-adapted forest, tall peaks and steep, rocky ridges. It is the most iconic wilderness landscape remaining in the Applegate Watershed and one of the most spectacular landscapes on the Siskiyou Crest. The Middle Fork itself is a clear mountain stream, becoming a river, as it winds through its rocky canyon. 

Middle Fork of the Applegate River
The Middle Fork is the source of our beloved Applegate River and one of the wildest landscapes remaining in the watershed. Although portions of the Middle Fork are accessible by road, numerous of its tributary streams, including Whisky Creek, Cook and Green Creek, and the Butte Fork of the Applegate River run into wilderness quality landscapes, such as the Red Buttes Wilderness Area, the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area, the Stricklin Butte Roadless Area and the Whisky Peak Roadless Area. 

The forests of the Middle Fork are among the most beautiful in the region. They support diverse habitats ranging from lush Douglas fir forests and diverse mixed conifer habitats dominated by massive sugar pine, to Jeffery pine savanna and woodlands of ancient chinquapin, live oak and madrone. 

Understory fire effects in Cook and Green Creek following the Abney Fire.
The old-growth forests found in these drainages are the best examples of intact, fire-adapted forest in the eastern Siskiyou Mountains and much of the area burned this past summer in the Abney Fire.  

The ancient forests deep in the canyons and on north-facing slopes predominantly burned at low severity as the fire backed slowly down into the Middle Fork canyon, consuming understory growth, clearing back decades of fuel, and maintaining the complex ancient forest habitats of the Middle Fork watershed.

The Abney Fire mostly burned low and cool, beneath tall, old trees, but in some places the fire raged, leaving only standing snags where green forests once stood. It burned as it should, according to its own rules, in a mosaic too complex for humans to mimic or reproduce.

Mixed-severity fire with some high-severity runs on the south face of Stricklin Butte and Bear Wallow Ridge in the Middle Fork canyon.
A mixture of fire effects punctuate the wild Middle Fork canyon, with much of the moderate and high-severity fire occurring on the exposed, south-facing slopes of Whisky Ridge, Bear Wallow Ridge and around Windy Peak on steep, windswept slopes of chaparral, low statured hardwoods, and groves of young conifers.

The Middle Fork watershed has burned twice in the last four years, including the 2014 Lick and Hello Fires and the 2017 Abney Fire. The results have been highly beneficial and provide evidence that many intact habitats in the upper portions of the Applegate watershed do not need "restoration" or logging "treatments" to maintain their health, vigor and fire resilience. These forests simply need to be left alone and allowed to periodically burn in natural wildfire events. Ultimately, only wildfire and other natural processes can effectively maintain this landscape and its many important ecological values.

The Abney Fire burned at mixed severity in the Cook and Green Creek watershed.
Far from catastrophic, the Abney Fire was a characteristic natural event. The fire enhanced, maintained and rejuvenated the region's beautiful forests, streams and natural amenities.

The Abney Fire began with an incredible night of lightning and three smokey, smoldering fires, burning in steep, inaccessible terrain: The Abney Fire began in Lick Gulch; the Cook Fire began in the Cook & Green Creek canyon — both roadless tributaries of the Middle Fork — and the Seattle Fire began above Seattle Bar on the rugged flank of Stricklin Butte. 

The Abney Fire burned in a beautiful mixed-severity fire mosaic throughout the fire area. This stand of incense cedar at the headwaters of Echo Creek, and forests all along the Horse Camp Trail up to Echo Lake, burned in the understory beneath an old-growth  canopy.
From the beginning, these three initial fire starts were wilderness fires, burning because they could, they should, and they always have.  Although almost never raging, the Abney Fire resisted containment until the bitter, cold end. In its rugged mountain fortress, the Abney Fire burned until the Siskiyou Crest was white with snow and winter had arrived. The Abney Fire is a reminder, that despite all our attempts to tame the wild, uncontrolled nature still rules our earth. Forces more powerful than we can imagine still shape our environment.

Low-severity fire effects on the Horse Camp Trail
The Abney Fire and its billowing smoke will define the summer of 2017 in the Applegate Valley, it will also leave its mark on the landscape for generations to come. The soot and snags and diverse natural communities that the Abney Fire has created will out last all who inhaled its smoke and witnessed its dancing flames. It will remain on the landscape for hundreds of years and will influence plant communities for even longer. 

This summer we did not witness a single awe-inspiring natural event, we watched, and will continue to witness, a dynamic process of evolution and change, a regenerative process that remains long after the heat is extinguished and the air has cleared. From now and into eternity the Abney Fire will be scorched into the region's natural history.

I encourage folks to go out and enjoy the Miller Complex Fire, visit the places you know and love, and watch them respond to the effects of the Abney Fire. The experience will change your perception of fire as a process. Fire is one of the most powerful and mysterious elements of nature. Like the spectacular total solar eclipse many of us experienced this past summer, the Abney Fire was an awe-inspiring natural event. An event we should celebrate and embrace.

 The lush Douglas fir forests along the Middle Fork Trail burned at very low severity, clearing back understory fuel, while maintaining the impressive old-growth canopy.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bark Beetles, Timber & the BLM in the Applegate Valley

Bark beetle mortality in the Ferris Gulch watershed. This stand was thinned in the early 1990s in the Ferris Lane Timber Sale, supposedly to increase resistance to bark beetle mortality; however, the area became the center of the 2016 bark beetle outbreak.
Applegate Neighborhood Network (ANN) and Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA) have just published a detailed report examining the ecology of flatheaded fir borers, the ecological effects of the 2016 bark beetle outbreak in the Applegate Valley, and the connection between BLM logging practices and concentrated bark beetle mortality in the Applegate Valley. 

In the spring and summer of 2016, a large-scale bark beetle outbreak swept through the Applegate Valley, triggered by extreme drought and warm winter temperatures. The low-elevation foothills of the Applegate Valley were particularly affected, causing mortality in Douglas fir trees throughout the watershed. In some areas mortality was very selective, in other locations significant overstory tree mortality was taking place.

While conducting timber sale monitoring on BLM land for Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA) and Applegate Neighborhood Network (ANN) I began to notice a pattern. In many cases, the largest concentrations of bark beetle mortality were occurring in managed stands. Many of these stands had been commercially logged by the BLM between 1990 and 2014.  In watersheds like Thompson Creek, Ferris Gulch, Sterling Creek and Star Gulch, extensive commercial logging projects had been implemented by BLM, supposedly to increase individual tree vigor, therefore, increasing resilience to drought, fire and beetle infestations. Ironically, these same stands became the center of the 2016 bark beetle outbreak.

Flatheaded fir borer mortality on Thompson Creek. The entire ridgeline shown in this photograph was commercially helicopter logged in the Lower Thompson Timber Sale in the late 1990s. The area has since experienced the highest level of bark beetle mortality in the Applegate Valley. Take note: the reddish/bronze colored trees in this photo have succumbed to flatheaded fir borer beetles.

The Environmental Analysis and the Endangered Species Act Consultation conducted by Fish and Wildlife for BLM timber sales relies on assumptions that tree vigor will respond positively to  commercial logging operations; that canopy cover conditions will recover relatively quickly; that wildlife habitat will benefit, and stand conditions will become more healthy, more complex and more resistant to bark beetle induced mortality. In many situations, the actual on-the-ground results are quite different. In 2016, commercially logged stands experienced decreased resistance to bark beetle mortality and became the center of the outbreak.

This photo taken in 2016 shows bark beetle mortality in the 2014 Sterling Sweeper Timber Sale.

In our report we compare maps of bark beetle mortality in 2016 to previously implemented BLM timber sales. We conduct an extensive literature review of bark beetle ecology and science. We also document our extensive on-the-ground field monitoring of past timber sales and bark beetle outbreak areas in the Applegate Valley. We question many of the assumptions built into timber management, BLM environmental analysis, and Endangered Species Act Consultation in southwestern Oregon and the Siskiyou Mountains.

To read the full report:
Bark Beetles, Timber & the BLM in the Applegate Valley

To read the Executive Summary:
Executive Summary: Bark Beetles, Timber & the BLM in the Applegate Valley 

Bark beetle mortality on Ferris Gulch. This unit was logged in the Ferris Lane Timber Sale in the early 1990s to supposedly increase resilience to bark beetle mortality. Obviously, the logging treatments did not have the intended results and beetle mortality was especially high in these previously logged stands.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Pickett West Units Withdrawn, New Timber Sale Proposed by BLM

Unit 35-11 in the Pickett West Timber Sale was withdrawn due to impacts to the red tree vole. The unit was identified by on-the-ground monitoring conducted by Klamath Forest Alliance, Applegate Neighborhood Network & the Deer Creek Association.
The Grants Pass BLM has withdrawn portions of the Pickett West Timber Sale!

A coalition of local environmental organizations, including Klamath Forest Alliance, Applegate Neighborhood Network and the Deer Creek Association joined forces this past year to conduct extensive on-the-ground field monitoring in units throughout the massive Pickett West Timber Sale. What we found in the Deer Creek watershed outside Selma, Oregon was troubling. We found many old-growth forests proposed for heavy industrial logging. Many of these forests provide important habitat for the Northern spotted owl and its prey source, the red tree vole. 

The red tree vole lives high in the canopy of old-growth Douglas-fir trees. The species is a habitat specialist, requiring old-growth Douglas-fir trees and complex forest habitat for nesting, foraging and every other aspect of its survival. These same old-growth forest conditions are important for the red tree vole's main predator, the Northern spotted owl. They also provide habitat for the Pacific fisher, thermal cover for local ungulates, and habitat for innumerable species of wildlife. 
Unit 27-14 was withdrawn due to impacts to the red tree vole, a species dependent on old-growth Douglas-fir trees.

Due to historic logging impacts, low-elevation ancient forests are rare. Low-elevation ancient forests are very important for habitat connectivity. The Pickett West Timber Sale was targeting many of the last old-growth habitats in the Deer Creek watershed for heavy industrial logging, and many people in the nearby community were outraged.

Our monitoring efforts identified many "high priority red tree vole sites" located within proposed logging units. We also found that in numerous units, Northern spotted owl habitat determinations were inappropriately designated. Our findings were turned over to U.S. Fish & Wildlife, who then requested that the BLM review these units to ensure accurate habitat determinations were made for Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultation. 

Unit 26-2 was withdrawn and will not be logged in the Clean Slate Project.
Recently, the Grants Pass BLM has withdrawn portions of the Pickett West Timber Sale in the Deer Creek watershed due to impacts to "high priority red tree vole" sites.
Our monitoring efforts, combined with red tree vole survey results, appear to have significantly altered the sale, with many old-growth units being withdrawn due to impacts to the red tree vole. 

In the Pickett West Timber Sale, BLM originally identified 2,070 acres for treatment in the Selma area. They have now initiated scoping on a new timber sale in the Selma area called the Clean Slate Forest Management Project. They have identified 486 acres within the same planning area as Pickett West. This means 1,584 acres have been withdrawn due to citizen and community activism!
Unit 3-11 from the former Pickett West Timber Sale is old-growth forest proposed for logging in the Clean Slate Forest Management Project. The unit must be canceled.

Unfortunately, the BLM is still proposing heavy industrial logging in old, fire resistant stands, riparian reserve logging and in a few units of significant concern. In particular, five units we identified in our monitoring efforts have been included in the Clean Slate Forest Management Project. These units were identified in the Pickett West Forest Management Project as: 3-9, 3-10, 3-11, 21-12, and 22-5. These units contain old-growth characteristics and should not be logged. For more information on these particular units please follow these links:
Units 3-9, 3-10 & 3-11 
Units 21-12 & 22-5 

The Clean Slate Forest Management Project includes numerous units we have yet to monitor and document. We hope to monitor these units throughout the winter in preparation for an upcoming Environmental Assessment of the Clean Slate Forest Management Project. Our goal is to protect as much old forest habitat as we possibly can and advocate for science and conservation-based management on our public lands. If you would like to support our continued on-the-ground monitoring efforts, please consider making a donation to Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA) and make a note that funds will support the Clean Slate Monitoring Project. To make a donation follow this link. Donate to KFA.
Unit 21-12 of the former Pickett West Timber Sale is being proposed for logging in the Clean Slate Forest Management Project. The unit must be canceled.

Please consider commenting on the Clean Slate Timber Sale. The comment period ends December 8, 2017. All comments can be sent via email to

Clean Slate Forest Management Project Comment Guide
  • Cancel units 3-9, 3-10, 3-11, 21-12 and 22-5 from the former Pickett West Forest Management Project. These old forests do not need logging, fuel reduction or "forest restoration" treatments.
  • Drop all riparian reserve logging units.
  • Maintain all Northern spotted owl habitat designation and a minimum of 60% canopy cover. 
  • Build no new roads.
  • Do not log old forest stands over 120 years old.
  • Consider an Alternative for NEPA analysis developed by local Selma area residents and foresters. This Action Alternative would treat stands under 120 years old based on the Natural Selection Alternative developed by Orville Camp and the Deer Creek Association.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Mixed Severity Fire in the Marble Mountains. Hot fire and Fire Refugia

A sunset from upper Dollar Meadows in the Wallow Fire on the Little North Fork of the Salmon River.
I recently hiked into the western portion of the Wallow Fire to monitor the fire effects and document the post-fire mosaic. I hiked the Garden Gulch Trail to Chimney Rock and then out to English Peak and Hancock Lake at the northwest fire perimeter. The Wallow Fire started on August 11, 2017 with a flash of lightning near Bear Wallow Peak, deep in the Marble Mountain Wilderness. After burning for weeks in the North Fork of the Salmon River, the fire jumped the ridge and burned into the Little North Fork drainage on August 29, 2017. Over the course of one week, 46,668 acres burned in a large, wind-driven run up the Little North Fork and into the headwaters of adjacent drainages, including Steinacher Creek, Crapo Creek, and tributaries of Wooley Creek. This week-long period accounts for 70% of the acres burned in the Wallow Fire.

Little North Fork of the Salmon River after the Wallow Fire.

The Wallow Fire's big western run was associated with significant wind/weather driven fire event. From August 29 to September 5, weather and terrain overwhelmed the adjacent 2006 and 2008 fire footprints, which would have otherwise slowed the fires spread. The steep slopes and deep canyons funneled the wind, throwing embers across the landscape. The Wallow Fire spotted up to two miles ahead, creating roughly 40 spot fires in upper Little North Fork, Steinacher Creek, Crapo Creek and numerous others drainages. The spot fires merged into a large concentration of weather-driven, high-severity fire at the western fire perimeter. 

As abruptly as the big, hot run began, it died down when the weather shifted. With a little rain and a significant increase in relative humidity, the raging fire smoldered itself out. Now that the smoke has cleared and the effects can be seen, it is clear that the Wallow Fire will leave a lasting impact on the Little North Fork and surrounding watersheds.
The Wallow Fire burned hot in upper Crapo Creek. When the weather changed and the wind became still the fire abruptly died, creating a dramatic transition between high-severity burn patches and unburned areas.

I hiked into Upper Crapo Creek at the southwest margin of the fire. The forest and chaparral on upper Crapo burned hot, yet the fire stubbornly refused to enter the adjacent fire footprint. Even the raging, wind-driven inferno could not penetrate the recently burned slopes.

The ridgeline above was sparse, black and fire swept, dividing the Little North Fork from Crapo Creek. Chimney Rock, a sharp, white summit stands at the terminus of the long granitic ridgeline, rising above the dark snags, soot and ash of the Wallow Fire. Deep canyons fall at both sides of the ridge, transitioning from snag fields to mixed conifer forest.
A view down the Little North Fork of the Salmon River after the Wallow Fire.

A small island of unburned hemlock, Brewer's spruce, western white pine, huckleberry and high mountain heather cling to the east-facing cliffs of Chimney Rock. The landscape is sparse, rocky and dramatic. Below, the Dollar Meadow Basin was heavily burned. Scattered western white pine, hemlock and incense cedar punctuate the bare granite slabs — mostly, the fire burned the forest bare. The small meadows were cleared by the fire, reducing conifer encroachment and connecting the long isolated meadow habitats. Much of the forest surrounding Dollar Meadows lost its struggle with the Wallow Fire and it appears the meadows may have won.

To the north, hot fire burned above Hamilton Camp, torching the true fir forest at the edge of the wet meadows. The fire cooled at the saddle and left a mosaic of burned forest and green, living trees. Heading northeast along the long granitic ridgeline between Hamilton Camp and English Peak you enter slopes that had heavily burned in 2006 Uncles Fire and re-burned in the Wallow Fire. The Wallow Fire rushed through this section with a vengeance, turning the snags black with charcoal, consuming the understory fuels and leaving a powdery layer of ash across the surface of the soil.
The ridge between Hamilton Camp and English Peak has transitioned to complex, early-seral vegetation.

Before the Wallow Fire the area supported extensive snag forests, chaparral, young conifer regeneration and dry bunchgrass and buckwheat clearings. The Wallow Fire uniformly scorched the majority of the ridge, leaving only occasional islands of young conifer regeneration, a few stands of more mature trees, and unburned bunchgrass clearings. The south-facing slopes are now blackened and will transform into yet another unique ecosystem. 

In some places snowbrush, huckleberry oak and other shrubs are  already regenerating, in other places fields of bracken fern, fireweed and dry grassy clearings are already returning. Large sections of regenerating forest were burned clean by the Wallow Fire, resetting the ecological clock.

An early-seral bunchgrass opening regenerating from the 2006 Uncles Fire.
The views are spectacular, stark, and humbling. They are also intriguing. How will the ecosystem respond? What will regenerate in this large, blackened area? How will the reburn affect stand development and species composition.

 In time, the biodiversity of the burn will become more apparent and the rejuvenation will surprise us with its abundance and beauty. From ashes, this habitat will rise, changed, but connected to its past and thriving in its own way. 

I can now envision the buckwheat fields, rock gardens, fireweed patches, dry bunchgrass clearings, vibrant green conifer regeneration, and yes, the brushfields that will grow from the blackened snags and downed wood, creating habitat and life. Pollinators, songbirds, butterflies, woodpeckers, elk, bear and wildlife of all sorts will visit these clearings for sustenance. What some might see as disaster is a new opportunity for many species in the complex, diversified conifer forests of the Klamath-Siskiyou. 

The large, high-severity burn patch extends from near Hamilton Camp to Snowslide Gulch and up to the flank of English Peak where meadow and forest alike are unburned. Rustic Tom Taylor Cabin burned to the ground in the firestorm, but English Peak Lookout, perched high in the rocks, remained safe from the flames.

On the other side of the ridge, the fire behaved very differently.  Despite the large run up Little North Fork, the North Fork of the Salmon River burned at low to moderate intensity. The Wallow Fire burned streaks in the forest and brush at the North Fork's headwaters, often dying out in the rocky cliffs, ledges and steep granite ramps above. Much of the area was either unburned or underburned, leaving the canopy intact and the mosaic only gently touched by visible fire effects.
A view from the ridge near English Peak into the beautiful English Lake Basin. The fire burned at low to moderate intensity in the North Fork of the Salmon River. The steep, granitic headwall acted as fire refugia, providing the southern-most Pacific silver fir an unburned island high in the rock.

Out the ridge, towards Diamond Lake, and the out towards Hancock Lake, lies the southern-most stand of Pacific silver fir. Pacific silver fir grows in cool, moist and often very snowy habitats. They are found in only two locations in the Klamath Mountains, one here, near Hancock Lake and another near Copper Butte and Black Mountain on the Siskiyou Crest.

Pacific silver fir near Diamond Lake.
Although the species is very sensitive to fire, it also grows in highly effective fire refugia. The southern-most population exists within a cool, moist island of forest surrounded by rocky cliffs and ledges. The hemlock, red fir and Pacific silver fir grow in dense, mature groves embedded within rock outcrops and wet meadows. Numerous recent fires have burned to the edge of this stand, but have yet to penetrate the rocky kingdom in which this population exists. The Wallow Fire burned all the way around the population, demonstrating the effectiveness of the fire refugia in which the Pacific silver fir live.

Pacific silver fir and many of our other fire sensitive species such as Alaska yellow cedar, subalpine fir and Brewer's spruce have developed an avoidance strategy, clinging to the very habitats fire cannot penetrate. They do not develop thick, insulating bark or high, fire resilient canopies; they do not thrive in the face of fire like knobcone pine, lodgepole pine or chaparral, instead they avoid fire by exploiting cool, moist and rocky, high mountain habitats. I often judge the effects of a fire on how well the fire sensitive species persist in the post-fire environment. In the case of the Wallow Fire, I have seen significant viable populations of subalpine fir, Brewer's spruce and Pacific silver fir avoiding the flames in their rugged mountain haunts. Clinging to the rocky, north-facing slopes where fire struggles to burn, our ancient relict conifer species seem to be doing just fine. 
Hancock Lake

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Burnt Peak Fire: Mixed-Severity Fire in the Applegate Foothills

The Burnt Peak Fire backed down the slopes of the Collings-Kinney Roadless Area into the Upper Applegate Valley.
I recently hiked the Burnt Peak Fire in the foothills of the Applegate Valley. The fire burned mostly within the Collings-Kinney Roadless Area in a rugged knot of mountains colonized by dense conifer forest, chaparral, live oak woodlands and deciduous oak habitats. The fire burned to the banks of Kinney and Palmer Creeks in the Upper Applegate Valley.

The Burnt Peak Fire started on August 14, 2017 high on the slopes of Burnt Peak, a summit of scrub brush and forest dividing Carberry Creek from the Upper Applegate Valley. Despite burning in the heat of summer and through heavy fuel, the fire backed down the slopes of Kinney and Palmer Creek, at mixed severity. Heavy smoke inversions and moderate weather conditions kept the fire cool in most of the fire area. The majority of the fire burned in the understory of mixed conifer forest dominated by Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, madrone and live oak. 
An understory burn in the Kinney Creek canyon.
In the Kinney and Palmer Creek canyons the fire burned at low severity beneath large, old fir and maple. It crept to the banks of the streams burning undergrowth. Snags and trees undermined by fire crashed to the forest floor and crossed the streams, stabilizing stream banks, holding moisture and creating pools in these small, fish-bearing streams. The Burnt Peak fire deposited a significant amount of large woody debris in the streams, showing that fires can help create better fish habitat.

The south-facing slope above Kinney Creek after the fire.
Higher on the slopes the fire was mixed, burning some locations at high, low and moderate severity. On the most exposed and rocky slopes stands of stump-sprouting live oak grow among thickets of knobcone pine and greenleaf manzanita. These stands are the remnants of hot, stand-replacing fires that burned between 1854 and 1917. They are fire dependent plant communities requiring periodic stand-replacing fire to persist and regenerate.

Still higher on the southern face of Burnt Peak, dense thickets of post oak, live oak, birchleaf mountain mahogany and silk tassel grow adjacent to small grassy clearings filled with rabbitbrush and laced in tufts of jagged bedrock. The dense brushy thickets burned off, while the fireline built by fire suppression crews stopped the fire just short of the small grassy clearings.
A view from near the summit of Burnt Peak looking across the Burnt Peak Fire in the foreground to the still burning Abney Fire in the background.

In the distance, the Abney Fire still burned on the northern face of the Siskiyou Crest, just below the Pacific Crest Trail, pouring smoke into the valley below. This summer the forests of the Applegate, from the foothills to the spine of the Siskiyou Crest burned, leaving a legacy of soot, snags, and fire-adapted forest habitats. 

After a long summer of smoke filled skies, we have received the blessing of natural, characteristic fire. Our forests have been fertilized with rich mineral ash and armored with nature's fuel reduction. Our wildlife will feast on the new grass and fresh woody shoots sprouting from burned off hardwoods and chaparral. Hollows burned in large, old-growth trees will become protection for the winter's slumbering bears or natal dens for the Pacific fisher. Fire-scorched snags will both feed and house generations of woodpeckers and songbirds. Rich fields of flowering plants will carpet the now black, burned soil, providing better habitat for many pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees next spring.

Fire is a natural process, as much a part of the Applegate Valley as the acorns on the oak trees, the salmon in our streams and the towering pine trees. The return of fire brings renewal and life to a landscape intentionally starved of fires for decades. The rejuvenation has already begun, transforming the white ash into green, verdant re-growth. 

Low-severity fire in Kinney Creek.

The Burnt Peak Fire allowed the long-suppressed natural process of fire to once again create a multitude of ecological benefits. The forests of the Siskiyou Mountains are well adapted to wildfire and the effects of the Burnt Peak Fire were both characteristic and beneficial. 

The Burnt Peak Fire demonstrates that many forests, just like those on Kinney and Palmer Creek can sustain healthy, mixed-severity fire, despite decades of fire suppression. The current rhetoric of catastrophic fire is a false narrative based more on fear than reality. When you actually walk and explore contemporary wildfires in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains you will find more renewal than destruction and more life than death. These fires are not destroying our forests, they are making them wild and whole again.
Forests just like this can be found all across the Applegate watershed and are often targeted for commercial thinning by federal land management agencies. We are told that the stand density, fuel loading and species composition makes these stands highly susceptible to uncharacteristic fire effects. We are also told that we must chose to either log these forests, or lose them to high-severity fire. Yet each summer thousands of acres, just like this, burn at low-severity all across our region. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

2017 Creedence Fire: The Smoke has cleared on Grayback Mountain

A view into the headwaters of O'Brien Creek from Grayback Mountain. Both sides of O'Brien Creek Meadows and the forested ridge to the right underburned in the Creedence Fire, leaving a rich, green forest canopy.
The Creedence Fire began with a strike of lightning on August 14, 2017 and burned in the back-country surrounding Grayback Mountain and the Kangaroo Roadless Area. Two fires were ignited, one on the lower slope of Bigelow Creek, and another high on the ridge near O'Brien Creek Meadows in the Grayback Mountain Botanical Area, at the headwaters of Carberry Creek. The two fires later merged to become the Creedence Fire, the westernmost fire in the Miller Complex.

Grayback Mountain is one of the Applegate Valley's most iconic and well-loved landscapes, rising to 7,048' above Thompson Creek, Carberry Creek and the Williams Valley. The forests, meadows, and wilderness-quality landscapes surrounding Grayback Mountain are cherished by hikers, wildflower enthusiasts, and various outdoor recreationists for their beauty and ecological integrity. Grayback Mountain is also a major watershed divide between the Applegate River and Illinois River watersheds. 

A beautiful underburn in white fir forest on the southwest flank of Grayback Mountain, in the Kangaroo Roadless Area.

The Creedence Fire burned 2,093 acres on both sides of the divide, including portions of O'Brien Creek and the Sturgis Fork of Carberry Creek, as well as Little Creek, a tributary of the Illinois River.  

Fire severity in the Creedence Fire was extremely minimal, with the vast majority of the fire burning at low severity. Forests of varying ages, compositions, stand densities, fuel profiles and structural conditions burned at low severity. Nearly all the old, fire-resistant forest in the Creedence Fire burned in the understory, clearing fuel and maintaining canopy conditions. Where high-severity fire did occur, it did so in ecosystems where high-severity fire is both healthy and beneficial, such as montane chaparral, knobcone pine and fire-mediated hardwood stands. These plant communities are dependent on high-severity fire and do not build natural fire resistance. Instead, these habitats are resilient to high-severity fire and respond with increased vigor and significant regeneration.

Fire severity in the Creedence Fire was heavily influenced by atmospheric inversions, favorable local weather patterns and slope aspect, with south-facing slopes sustaining higher fire severity. Pre-fire vegetation patterns also played a role in shaping the mosaic, but fuel loading and stand density had little influence on fire effects.
Species such as knobcone pine depend on stand-replacing fire for regeneration. Periodic high-severity fire promotes vigor, regeneration and renewal in the montane chaparral and knobcone pine plant community.
Recently, the Forest Service lifted a few of its fire related road closures, allowing access to much of Sturgis Creek. Currently, O'Brien Creek Road and the O'Brien Creek Trail are not open for public use and the Grayback Mountain Trail on adjacent BLM land is also temporarily closed. Although the roads and trails are closed, the area is open to rugged, cross-country hiking. A few mornings ago I drove up Sturgis Creek to check things out. 

I parked at the southeast corner of the fire near the banks of Sturgis Creek at about 3,200'. I started up the steep, south-facing slope, first in plantation forest, then into the Kangaroo Roadless Area. 

Dense stands of chinquapin, madrone and live oak grew from rocky slopes along with widely scattered old-growth fir. The massive old fir grow as isolated individuals among the vast groves of hardwood trees. The fire in this portion is mixed, but the large old conifers have mostly survived.

Green leaf manzanita burls.
As I climbed onto increasingly steep, dry, rocky and exposed slopes, the character of the fire changed. The fire ran through the greenleaf manzanita, young live oak, chinquapin, massive, wide-branching knobcone pine, and scattered populations of maturing ponderosa pine and Douglas fir at high severity. 

Although small patches of forest remain, the southwest-facing slope has mostly burned off, leaving the charred root burls of stump-sprouting greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphlyos patula) and the ghostly, scorched-off snags of conifer trees. The odd looking manzanita burls store abundant energy in their bulging root crowns, and the energy is utilized following high-severity fire. The shrubs will sprout back from the charred, black burls. Although not dominant within the stand, a significant population of relatively old knobcone pine burned in the fire, leaving distinctive snags, their branches lined in fire-opened seed cones. 

Chinquapin resprouting weeks after the fire.
To some, the effects of the high-severity portion of the Creedence Fire may appear catastrophic, but for this ecosystem fire represents renewal. The manzanita, live oak and chinquapin will resprout; in fact, the chinquapin has already burst back to life with the fresh green shoots of a new tree, no more than a few weeks after the fire swept through this stand. Knobcone pine is a serotinous species, meaning the heat of fire, especially stand-replacing fire is required to open the resin-sealed pine cone, releasing the seeds and triggering germination. High-severity fire is required for regeneration and renewal in the montane chaparral and knobcone pine plant community that dominates the slope. The Creedence Fire blackened the slope in this particular spot, and in doing so will reinvigorate this specific habitat type, maintaining biodiversity on the landscape. 
The big forested ridge in the foreground underburned in the Creedence Fire. To the untrained eye one would hardly notice. The vast underburn provided fuel reduction, recycled nutrition and restored the natural fire process to these long unburned, old-growth forests in the Kangaroo Roadless Area.

When I reached the ridgeline above the fire seems to have slowed, burning in a mosaic pattern. The fire thinned the Douglas fir, white fir and ponderosa pine groves, clearing understory fuels and recycling nutrition. The vast majority of the stand's largest trees, including ponderosa pine up to 6' in diameter, survived the fire. The north slope dropping into O'Brien Creek burned at low severity, beneath massive, old fir trees. Climbing the ridge, the underburn continued through a variety of stand types dominated by white fir. 

Still climbing upward, I finally broke out of the forest and into open manzanita fields, speckled in symmetrical young fir, some bronze and scorched, while others remain green, vibrant and unscathed. Broad views extend to the south and east. The Abney Fire billowed in the distance, pouring smoke across the jumbled ridges and rugged canyons of the Siskiyou Mountains. 
The green forests and wet meadows in upper O'Brien Creek burned only at the margins. A few stringers of trees were burned in the rocky outcrops, and patches of brush burned in the rocks. For the most part very little has changed on Grayback Mountain.

The rocky ledges offer protection to fire sensitive mountain hemlock then drop into the headwaters of O'Brien Creek, a lush green band of meadow below the rocky summit of Grayback Mountain. Although the fire burned on either side of the meadows, the wet meadow habitat created a barrier for the Creedence Fire and moderated fire severity even further.

As I climbed the ridge towards the summit of Grayback Mountain, the fire burned in a patchy mosaic, torching off patches of manzanita and groupings of windswept fir. The fire burned around, but did not consume the small, disjunct population of bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) about halfway to the summit. The small, sparse bench of crushed granite provided a fuel brake, protecting the bitterbrush.

As I climbed towards the summit a misty rain fell and clouds swirled around the surrounding canyons. After a few hours of hard hiking and nearly 4,000' vertical feet, I reached the jumbled mound of white granite boulders at the mountain's 7,048' summit and suddenly the sky cleared. 
A view southeast across the Kangaroo Roadless Area and the Creedence Fire from just below the summit of Grayback Mountain.

I looked out across the Siskiyou Mountains and thought of the political firestorm still raging as the wildfires of 2017 smolder and burn themselves out. I thought of how these natural, unavoidable events are exploited and manipulated to create fear, that in turn feeds political and economic interests. Wildfire, is just that, wild and largely uncontrollable. It exists outside the realm of politics and has no concern for the controversy it creates. It is a natural phenomenon existing in an largely unnatural world. 

Despite the claims of catastrophic fire and devastation, the mountains remain cloaked in a rich green veil of forest, albeit streaked and spotted in the reddish hues of fire-scorched trees. These are fire dependent, fire-adapted systems whose health and vibrancy is intimately tied to a random streak of lightning, an electrical pulse of energy, heat, and finally flame. The diversified forests of the Siskiyou Mountains were born in fire and have been shaped by its influence for millennia. 

The heavily forested ridge in the foreground drains into Little Creek, a roadless tributary of Grayback Creek. The ridgeline and the drainage below burned in the Creedence Fire as a vast, low-intensity underburn.
Now that the smoke has cleared and the fall rains have moistened the dry summer air and sun-baked fuels, we can see through the haze and past the fear. When I looked out across the mountains I felt no regret or sorrow for what was lost, instead I saw a familiar, decidedly functional landscape, undergoing transformation and change. 

In the Applegate watershed, much was gained. Fire was restored to over 37,000 acres, and in some of the most intact habitats in our region. It is my hope that through these fires our forests have become more diverse and fire-adapted. It is also my hope that our human communities can adapt and evolve to embrace this raw elemental force and celebrate the beauty of fire's influence. We must learn to live with fire. It is a vital natural process, with the power to shape our landscape and the ability to capture our minds.

Fire can be destructive in a sense, but like nature's phoenix, it brings renewal. May that renewal continue, both on the landscape and in our collective minds. Fire is a part of life in the Siskiyou Mountains, it is as natural as the wind and rain. As a society we must find ways to embrace and appreciate the role fire plays. 
From the Creedence Fire looking south across Sturgis Creek to Steve Peak. Let us celebrate the beauty of nature's phoenix.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

2017 Wallow Fire: Fire Effects in the Marble Mountains Wilderness

A view across the Wallow Fire in the North Fork of the Salmon River from the Pacific Crest Trail in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

Since 2012 the Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports have been documenting the effects of wildfires occurring throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou region. We ground-truth and document fire suppression actions and their environmental impacts. We are the only organization getting out on the ground and into the heart of the fires, writing detailed reports about how they burned and how fire suppression actions are impacting the wild places we love.

Our 2017 field season is in full swing. This week we hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Etna Summit and down into the North Fork of the Salmon River into the Wallow Fire, part of the Salmon August Complex. The Wallow Fire burned primarily in the Marble Mountains Wilderness and its surrounding roadless areas. The video below demonstrates the fire effects as seen from the PCT in between Etna Summit and Shelly Meadows. All closures have been lifted in the Marble Mountains and now is a great time to get out and see the fire effects firsthand.

As emergency closure areas are lifted and we can get into remote fire areas, Klamath Forest Alliance will hike the fires, hike the firelines and conduct detailed analysis of fire suppression actions. Part of the analysis also includes a lot of time devoted to scouring over agency documents and fire maps. This important work helps inform the broader discussion regarding fire effects and forest management in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains and the need to reform fire suppression actions.

Donate to the Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports and support detailed analysis of wildfires in the Klamath-Siskiyou! Please indicate your donation is intended for the Fire Reports.

This photo of lower Shelly Meadows, at the headwaters of the North Fork Salmon River, in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, shows how the fire stopped at the meadow's edge. Upper Shelly Meadows supports a rare southern population of subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa). Despite some high-severity fire effects in the surrounding forest, the wet meadow habitat where the subalpine fir grows remained unburned.

A view east from the Pacific Crest Trail looking down the Mill Creek watershed in the Mill Creek Roadless Area.  
A natural firebreak on the rocky ridge dropping into Kidder Creek, near Martin and Fisher Lakes on the PCT. Notice how the fire burned up the south-facing slope in montane chapparal, yet the fire sensitive Brewer's spruce on the north-facing slope were either unburned or burned at very low severity.

The high elevation forests of the Marble Mountains are adapted to mixed-severity fire. The true fir stands often burn in a complex mosaic of high, low and moderate-severity fire.  
Fire effects in the Wallow Fire, part of the Salmon August Complex, as seen from the PCT on September 26, 2017. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Victory for the Siskiyou Crest! Old-growth Logging near Condrey Mountain Canceled.

These vibrant post-fire landscapes will no longer be subjected to clear-cut, post-fire logging as proposed in the Horse Creek Project.
Following the Gap Fire on the Klamath River, the Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA), Applegate Neighborhood Network (ANN), Siskiyou Crest Blog and other conservation partners joined together in opposition to post-fire logging on the Siskiyou Crest. The Klamath National Forest (KNF) had proposed post-fire logging on the slopes of the Siskiyou Crest near Condrey Mountain and Dry Lake Mountain.  The proposed logging units were located in upper Buckhorn and Middle Creek adjacent to the Condrey Mountain Blue Schist Geologic Area, the Condrey Mountain Roadless Area and the Pacific Crest Trail.

KFA and EPIC responded by publishing the Gap Fire Report, documenting the cumulative impact of fire suppression activities in the Gap Fire. KFA and ANN also played a vital role by monitoring the proposed post-fire logging units. We were the only conservation organizations to conduct detailed, unit by unit monitoring of post-fire logging units on the Siskiyou Crest. We hiked the units, documented the quality of habitat and natural burn mosaic, identified the likely ecological impacts of post-fire logging, and incorporated these observations into our administrative objections. We also publicized our findings on the Siskiyou Crest Blog.

The work of KFA has helped to protect the wild forests of the Siskiyou Crest.
In response to our advocacy and that of our conservation allies, the Klamath National Forest has canceled 450 acres of the most controversial and damaging units in the timber sale including all 14 units proposed on the Siskiyou Crest. The Klamath National Forest has also agreed to amend their decision and will now drop two miles of new road construction, retain all snags over 45" diameter, commit to prescribed fire and timely fuel treatments adjacent to the community of Horse Creek and work with the Karuk Tribe to manage post fire re-vegetation projects and eliminate plantation development.

We all have reason to celebrate a victory for the Siskiyou Crest because the wild forests near Condrey Mountain will remain unaltered by clear-cut, post-fire logging; however we must also prepare to defend more fire affected forest from being converted to tree plantations. Many wildfires burned throughout our region this summer and this fall, the Forest Service will no doubt be planning more post-fire logging projects. Please consider making a donation to KFA and support our work as we assess the seasons wildfires and oppose the nearly inevitable post-fire logging proposals. Our field work can again contribute to the protection of wildplaces in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains.

Complex, snag forest habitat will develop into complex early seral habitat supporting an abundance of flowering plants, woody shrubs and young trees. The post-fire landscape, if left undisturbed, can support incredible biodiversity and highly productive wildlife habitat. The snag habitat in this photographs was proposed for road construction and clear-cut logging, it will instead remain unlogged.