Monday, August 27, 2018

Taylor Creek Fire: Wildfire on the Wild Rogue

The Taylor Creek Fire burned into the famous Hellgate Canyon on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River at low to moderate severity, leaving most of the conifer overstory intact.
The Taylor Creek Fire burned this summer in the mountains west of Grants Pass, Oregon. The fire burned through a diverse mosaic of mixed conifer forest, oak woodland, mixed hardwood stands, serpentine savanna, and rugged serpentine barrens. The Taylor Creek Fire has burned 52,838 acres and is 95% contained. 

The fire began on July 15 in a large lightning storm that lit fires throughout southern Oregon. The Taylor Creek Fire was one of many fires in the area, but it outpaced many of the local fires, burning roughly 20,000 acres in the first week. By early August, the Taylor Fire had merged with the Klondike Fire as it burned east from the Illinois River canyon. Large tactical firing operations occurred on the long ridgelines connecting the Illinois River to Onion Mountain above the Illinois Valley. Although administratively considered two separate fires, for all practical purposes the Taylor Creek and Klondike Fires create one large fire footprint extending across 140,921 acres, and growing. It is currently only the northwest portion of the fire that is actively moving in the big, wild country around Silver Creek and in the Illinois River Canyon. 
Mixed severity fire effects on Pickett Creek in the Taylor Creek Fire.

I recently had the opportunity to visit portions of the Taylor Creek Fire to document fire effects. Although the fire area is currently closed to the general public, it can be accessed with a permit through the Forest Service and Josephine County. 

What I saw up Limpy Creek, Pickett Creek, and on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River between Hellgate Canyon and Galice, Oregon, was a spectacular mosaic of mixed severity fire. Many of the canyons remain largely green and vibrant with forest that underburned at low severity in the Taylor Creek Fire. Small patches of forest and woodland torched, creating small openings in the vast low severity fire that occurred in lower Limpy Creek, Pickett Creek and along the Rogue River. Other portions of the fire—often higher on the slopes, and in the steep, windy headwalls—burned at high severity, leaving a rich mosaic of burned and underburned forest.

Low severity fire in the grassy serpentine savanna on Pickett Creek in the Taylor Creek Fire.
Despite all the rhetoric about "catastrophic," high severity fire, many of the fires in our region contain largely low to moderate severity fire effects. Like many fires in our region, the Taylor Creek Fire burned in a largely natural mixed severity mosaic, leaving a diversity of forest types, successional stages and burn severity scattered in the already highly diverse and jumbled landscape. 

Wildfire is a natural, regenerative process, and although recently it has become highly politicized and polarizing, it has long played a positive role in shaping the diversified forests our region is known for. Despite our best efforts to extinguish them, fires manage to become established in remote, hard-to-reach places, especially when the weather and terrain align. When fire activity increases and the fires spread across the rugged, complex of mountains, canyons and ridges of the Siskiyou Mountains, they become extremely difficult to contain. 
 
From near the headwaters of Pickett Creek, looking east towards the Rogue River Valley near Grants Pass, Oregon, after the Taylor Creek Fire.

Although the Taylor Creek Fire threatened numerous communities as it backed down towards the Rogue River, no homes were lost and the fire appears to have had only positive ecological effects, including large areas of low severity and moderate severity fire. Smaller portions of the fire burned at high severity, leaving behind soot, ash and fire blackened snags. The diversity left behind is staggering and the regeneration will be spectacular. 

The fire has enhanced the diversity and resilience of these forests, creating an even more vibrant Rogue River and demonstrating the natural fire resilience much of southern Oregon still sustains. 

Low severity fire effects in Limpy Creek in the Taylor Creek Fire. 
 
A high severity burn patch in upper Limpy Creek, looking down into green, underburned forest.


Very little has changed on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River downstream from Hellgate Canyon. The fire burned at low severity, reinforcing existing vegetation patterns and reducing fuels.

A beautiful, natural fire mosaic on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River after the Taylor Creek Fire.

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