Sunday, September 30, 2018

Klondike Fire: Fire Ecology in the Biscuit Reburn

A view across the Klondike Fire from $8 Mountain Road to the Squaw Mountain Inventoried Roadless Area north of the Illinois River. Photo taken September 28, 2018.
The Klondike Fire began as a natural lightning ignition in some of the wildest, most inaccessible country on the West Coast. The fire started in the Klondike Creek canyon, deep in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, within the vast Biscuit Fire footprint and in exceptionally rugged terrain. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest aggressively attacked the fire, but could not contain the remote blaze due to a lack of resources, extremely rough and inaccessible country, and very real safety concerns for firefighting personnel. 

Cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica) burned in the Klondike 
Fire already has new, fresh vegetation.
Despite very aggressive fire suppression strategies that created significant environmental impacts and required an enormous investment of taxpayer dollars, the stubborn Klondike Fire still burns in the backcountry of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the surrounding Roadless Areas. Currently the fire is burning in the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area deep in the canyons of Silver Creek, Indigo Creek, Horse Sign Creek and the lower Illinois River. 

Since the 2002 Biscuit Fire much of the region has been regenerating vegetation and rebuilding fuel beds. As vegetation has grown and ground fuels have built up, the Biscuit Fire footprint was finally ready to carry fire again. Some fires within the Biscuit Fire footprint, such as the 2013 Labrador Fire and the 2015 Buckskin Fire, were significantly moderated by the effects of the Biscuit Fire. Although suppressed, the Labrador and Buckskin Fires burned at mostly low to moderate severity and smoldered out in young patches of chaparral punctuated by rocky openings. 
 
The Klondike Fire as seen from upper Fall Creek with Pearsoll Peak in the distance.

In the past few years, however, larger fires have started to burn in the vast backcountry of the Kalmiopsis, including the 2016 Collier Fire, 2017 Chetco Bar Fire, and now the 2018 Klondike Fire. On particularly rocky slopes and harsh serpentine sites fire behavior has been significantly moderated by the influence of the Biscuit Fire and a lack of fuel continuity, even sixteen years later. In other locations, dense chaparral had formed and the fires burned with more intensity. In many cases, isolated islands of conifer forest and stringers of conifer habitat survived the fire, while the nearby chaparral burned. 

Fire-killed snags on the north face of Fiddler Mountain.
These snags are from the Biscuit Fire and they reburned in 
the Klondike Fire but many remain standing.
Many of the fire-killed snags from the Biscuit Fire still stand, even after the Klondike Fire, attesting to the relatively low intensity fire effects and the longevity of these important biological legacies. These snags are scattered within stands of green, living forest, underburned in the Biscuit Fire, or in ghostly, white swaths memorializing large, hot runs made during the Biscuit Fire. 

To this day, Biscuit Fire snags are providing habitat, building soils and have not significantly contributed to fire intensity. Despite dire predictions that stands not subjected to post-fire logging would burn at increased severity, neither the Chetco Bar or the Klondike Fire validated these concerns. Simply put, fuel loading is not the driver of fire severity, instead it is weather and terrain, with the most extreme fire events occurring when weather and terrain are in alignment or during heavy Chetco Effect wind.
Large swaths of Jeffery pine savanna near $8 Mountain burned at low severity in the Klondike Fire.

On its southeastern perimeter, the Klondike Fire burned from the banks of the Illinois River below Josephine Creek into mixed conifer forests and Jeffery pine savanna on harsh serpentine soils. The fire burned through fine grassy fuels in these savanna stands, burning at low severity and maintaining their open, spacious, and unusual character. The savannas rise gently at first, then climb into steep, rocky slopes of pine, rusty red serpentine outcrops, and tufts of chaparral. Higher on the slopes rich, mixed conifer forests reach to the stark, rocky ridges of the Chetco Divide.

The Klondike fire burned up Mike's Gulch, Alder Gulch and Hoover Gulch to Pocket Knoll, and from the north, up Fall and Rancheria Creek to Fiddler Mountain, Whetstone Butte and the region around Pearsoll Peak. Beyond Pearsoll Peak and Gold Basin Butte, the fire still burns in Salmon Creek above the Illinois River, sending a small plume of smoke into the blue, slightly hazy skies. 
 
A view across the Klondike Fire to the Illinois River and beyond.

At the headwaters of Fall Creek the Klondike Fire burned at mixed severity. Despite the vast brushy snag patches in upper Fall Creek, the fire was moderate and patchy. Much of the scattered forest that survived the Biscuit Fire, again burned mostly low and cool in the understory. As Fall Creek rises towards Fiddler Mountain, beautiful stands of fir, pine and cedar support robust populations of Brewer's spruce. This healthy Brewer's spruce population has made it through two large wildfires, mostly unscathed, and includes relatively large, mature trees, vigorous young trees, saplings and seedlings.

At the summit of Fiddler Mountain little has changed; the fire burned at mostly low severity, dying out as it climbed into the rocky headwall on the mountain's northern face. Groves of true fir, Doug fir, pine and Brewer's spruce grow among rock gardens, dense colonies of montane chaparral and bands of bare rock. 
A view north from the top of Fiddler Mountain into the Klondike Fire and the headwaters of Fall Creek.

The Klondike Fire burned to the Chetco Divide near Onion Camp, creating a complex mosaic of burned and unburned vegetation. Many large snag fields essentially underburned, maintaining the white snags while consuming the brush and regeneration below. 

In other locations, unburned vegetation snakes through areas that burned with intensity, as swaths of black reach up and over to the ridges. The fire snaked its way around the flanks of Whetstone Butte, dying out as it backed into the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire footprint and the Chetco River watershed. 

The Biscuit Fire burned across this same landscape in 2002, creating a forest of snags, referred to by scientists as "complex, early seral habitat." The habitat, although somewhat forbidding to the human eye, is exceptionally diverse and important for many wildlife species. The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire burned into the regenerating brush and young trees, turning the white, sun-bleached snags a rich, charcoal black. This summer fingers of the Klondike Fire burned over the ridge and into last year's Chetco Bar Fire footprint. Almost completely lacking fuel, the Klondike Fire naturally put itself out at the margin of last years burn. 
The Klondike Fire burned into the Chetco River watershed near Whetstone Butte, blackening the snags from the Biscuit Fire and burning a mosaic in the regenerating vegetation.

Although the 2018 fire season has been hard on human communities, it has not been so hard on the forests and canyons in which the fires burned. For much of the fire season heavy inversions and relatively favorable fire weather moderated fire behavior, creating highly beneficial low and moderate severity fire effects. 

When those inversion layers lifted and the wind blew, the fires responded, creating high-severity fire effects. In some places this converted mid to late seral conifer forest into complex, early seral habitat, and in other places the Klondike Fire burned through large swaths of chaparral with intensity. 
 
Low to moderate severity fire effects in the headwaters of Fiddler Gulch.

These mixed-severity effects, including the high-severity fire runs, will create diversity in structure and composition, while moderating future fire behavior. Wildfire is essential to the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains and plays an important role in creating and sustaining the biodiversity this region is so well known for. In the case of the Klondike Fire, the reburn within the vast Biscuit Footprint will shape these regenerating forests for many years to come.

Despite the heavy smoke, intense public dialog and sensationalized media frenzy surrounding the Klondike Fire and the 2018 fire season, it appears to have been a highly characteristic natural event. Driven by wind, weather and terrain, the fires burned in a beautiful productive fire mosaic. When the smoke clears and the rhetoric dies down, many will visit the Kalmiopsis region and find the same, strange, fire-adapted landscape they know and love. Although the Klondike Fire itself was not uncharacteristically severe, it has been demonized by the media and by opportunist politicians. Interestingly, not much has changed in the wildlands, except the social and political climate that surrounds it.
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A view across the Chetco Divide from Whetstone Butte to Pearsoll Peak. The Klondike Fire burned over the Chetco Divide from the Illinois River watershed and into the headwaters of Babyfoot and Slide Creeks. The photograph shows the mosaic of the 2002 Biscuit Fire, 2017 Chetco Bar Fire and the 2018 Klondike Fire. For the most part the snags were a product of the Biscuit Fire and both the Chetco Bar and Klondike Fires burned a diverse mosaic in the post-Biscuit regeneration.

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