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.



 



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