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.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The 2018 Fire Season: A Destructive New Paradigm in Backcountry Fire Suppression, and a Challenge for the Environmental Community

Last year Azalea Lake in the Red Buttes Wilderness burned at mixed severity in the 2017 Miller Complex Fire. 
The 2018 fire season has been very active in southern Oregon and northern California, with both lightning and human caused fires burning across the region. Domesticated landscapes and urban areas, as well as wildlands and wilderness areas have burned, filling the canyons and valleys with smoke. 

At times, the fires have burned slowly, creating low to moderate-severity fire effects. At other times, wind and weather-driven runs have scorched the forest canopy, spread quickly and burned with intensity. The result is a diverse mosaic of mixed-severity fire, creating complex structural conditions, a variety of plant communities, staggered successional stages and uniquely biodiverse and abundant post-fire landscapes. 

Although the 2018 fire season has been tragic due to the loss of life and the burning of many homes, much of the backcountry fire activity, so far, appears characteristic for our region. Fire severity has been moderated by heavy smoke inversions for much of the summer, but when the smoke lifts and the wind blows, fire behavior responds with increased intensity. (For more information on how localized wind affects fire behavior check out this research.)
Wildfire has triggered dynamic ecological changes on the slopes around Lonesome Lake in the Red Buttes Wilderness. Before the 1987 Fort Copper Fire this area supported a high elevation forest. The Fort Copper Fire burned at relatively high severity, and twenty-five years later the 2012 Fort Complex Fire also burned through these once forested slopes. The repeat fires facilitated the area's transformation into beautiful meadow-like slopes filled with native grasses, wildflowers and abundant wildlife. In the canyon below Lonesome Lake the old-growth forest was maintained by wildfire and remains vibrant old forest after the 2012 Fort Complex Fire.

Wildfire is a dynamic natural process driving ecological change, rejuvenating plant communities, diversifying our forests, and reducing fuel in landscapes across the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. If managed properly and under the correct weather conditions, wildfires can be suppressed before they impact communities, and used as a tool to restore fire-adapted ecosystems. 

Some fires, for example the Carr Fire currently burning near Redding, California, and the Taylor Fire burning outside Grants Pass, Oregon should be responsibly suppressed to protect communities and public safety. Because fire managers prioritize front country fires during initial attack efforts, many of the fires extinguished by fire crews this summer were located close to communities and important infrastructure. Over 100 fires were extinguished on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest alone, while the most remote and difficult fires continue burning.
The Burnt Peak Fire burned in the Upper Applegate Valley in the 2017 Miller Complex Fire. The fire backed safely to the community below, with no loss to homes or infrastructure. The fire was fully suppressed, but impacts were minimal due to the indirect containment strategy and the patience of fire managers. The long-term effects of the Burnt Peak Fire are profoundly positive for the forest and the nearby community.

Fire managers have the ability to implement the "Appropriate Management Response" during wildfire suppression activities. This means that crews can aggressively suppress some fires or portions of a fire, while suppressing less aggressively on other portions. In some places the fire can be fought indirectly, allowing the fire to burn within predetermined boundaries to prepared firelines. This reduces fuel, restores fire as a natural ecosystem process, and allows fire crews to safely focus their energy where it is most necessary, adjacent to homes and communities.

For example, fires like the Klondike Fire currently burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and Illinois River canyon, could be managed by suppressing the eastern flank before it impacts the community of Selma, Oregon, while the southern and western margin in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness could be allowed to burn into natural barriers created by the 2002 Biscuit Fire, 2013 Labrador Fire and the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire footprints. 

These recent fire footprints are likely to either not burn at all, or burn at mostly low severity. In fact, the Klondike Fire's southern and western perimeter is currently hung up at the boundary of the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire, which is acting like a natural fire break. These portions of the fire have hardly moved for over a week and contain very little active heat according to Forest Service infrared maps.
The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire footprint is providing a 190,000-acre natural fuel break west and south of the current 2018 Klondike Fire.

The Natchez Fire burning on the Siskiyou Crest between Takilma, Oregon and Happy Camp, California could also be managed both to protect communities and restore a more natural fire regime in the Siskiyou Wilderness. This fire could be suppressed where it threatens communities and steered southwest into the 2017 Eclipse Fire footprint, the sparse, rocky summits surrounding Preston Peak, and the Siskiyou Wilderness Area. It is highly likely that the fire could stall out in the rocky and recently burned terrain.

The ecological impact of fire suppression activities, such as the use of bulldozers to build fireline, the ignition of high severity backburns, heavy snag removal, and the creation of helipads, safety zones, and hoist sites in Wilderness Areas, Roadless Areas, Botanical Areas, old-growth forests, Late Successional Reserves and other wildland habitats is becoming more significant with each passing year. 

Environmentalists and public land watchdogs need to be aware of the increasing ecological damage sustained in our wildlands during fire suppression activities. Just as we provide public input on other activities that affect the public lands we love, such as timber sales, pipelines, oil drilling, mining, etc., we must also provide land managers with input regarding fire management. (For information on how to track wildfires, wildfire effects and fire suppression impacts check out this link)

In many cases the impact of discretionary fire suppression activities is far more severe than the impact of the wildfire itself. Currently, irresponsible fire suppression is one of the most damaging forms of land management affecting our roadless wildlands and protected Wilderness Areas. Irresponsible, backcountry fire suppression activities are degrading our wildlands, their intact roadless values, and the complex ecosystems they support.
This dozerline was built in the Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument through miles of old-growth forests, rocky lithosol meadows filled with wildflowers, rare plant populations, and both across and adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail. This dozerline is many miles from the Klamathon fire perimeter and did not serve as fire containment line. The impacts from the dozerline on the Soda Mountain Wilderness will be permanent, yet provided no benefit to fire suppression crews.

This season we have seen an escalation in the war against fire and smoke, we have also seen a severe escalation in environmental impacts associated with fire suppression activities. Damaging fire suppression tactics have been approved in many of our wildest, most intact landscapes by both the Forest Service and BLM, including the Soda Mountain, Siskiyou and Kalmiopsis Wilderness Areas, the Big Red Mountain Botanical Area and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. 

For the first time in many years the wilderness areas of southern Oregon and northern California have been subjected to the use of bulldozers in designated Wilderness Areas. The approval to bulldoze firelines and access routes inside designated wilderness areas was virtually unheard of until this season, yet fire managers have approved dozer use in all three of our wilderness fires. 

Most egregiously, an estimated 35 miles of dozerline now crisscrosses the Soda Mountain Wilderness and adjacent portions of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Rare plant populations, the Pacific Crest Trail and other wilderness trails were bulldozed by fire suppression crews, creating extreme impacts to the region's intact plant communities and biodiversity. The impact of suppression activities in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is both unprecedented and entirely unacceptable. Both ODF and BLM are responsible and need to hear from us.
An estimated 3/4 of a mile of the Boccard Point Trail in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was bulldozed by BLM and ODF fire suppression crews, destroying a popular wilderness trail and degrading wilderness values. The fireline was miles from the Klamathon fire perimeter and was never used for fire containment.

The environmental movement has spent many decades working to protect Wilderness Areas that are now threatened by irresponsible, environmentally damaging and overly aggressive backcountry firefighting. As a movement we must encourage the use of restorative, low-impact fire suppression tactics and strategies, especially in our wildlands. We must also document and address the impact of heavy handed fire suppression activities on our public lands. In many cases, these impacts could be avoided while safely and effectively suppressing or managing wildland fires.

If these impacts continue to be ignored by the environmental community, many of our most beloved wildlands will be bulldozed, roaded, heavily backburned and riddled in large landings. Wilderness trails and ridgelines will become raw, weed infested dozerlines, habitat for rare plant species will be destroyed, and wild streams will be "snagged" of all large, dead standing trees. As time goes on and these impacts are repeated across our landscape, significant wildlands and important biodiversity will be lost. As environmentalist, we must address these impacts with solutions that include the protection of communities and important habitat values.

After having last year's Miller Complex Fire burn to my own off-grid homestead surrounded by Forest Service land, without the loss of property or the need for damaging fire suppression tactics (only minimal, light backburning was used), I know firsthand that under good weather conditions our rural communities can live with wildfire and our forests can benefit from effective wildfire management. It is our responsibility as rural landowners to create defensible space around our homes and support fire crews so they can be safe while protecting private property in often rugged, remote and difficult terrain. To a certain extent our homes and the lives of firefighting personnel largely depend on our ability to be prepared.
A massive "safety zone" built on the 640 road north of Oak Flat and the Klondike Fire near Flat Top Mountain. The impact of safety zone development on this site will be severe, with permanent impacts to soils and botanical resources. Photo credit: Inciweb

The Klamath Forest Alliance will be publishing a series of fire reports for this summer's wildfires in southwestern Oregon. We will be exploring the mosaic of the fires, evaluating their effects and documenting fire suppression impacts.  Please consider supporting this visionary and challenging work with a generous, tax-deductible donation. We have a lot of research and field monitoring to do across the region and we need your support!

We will be covering the following wildfires in southern Oregon:
  • Klamathon Fire in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and Soda Mountain Wilderness Area
  • Klondike Fire on the Illinois River in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the surrounding inventoried roadless area. 
  • Natchez Fire on the Siskiyou Crest in the Siskiyou Wilderness and surrounding Klamath National Forest lands,
  • Taylor Fire on the Rogue River near Merlin and Galice, Oregon.  
  • Hendrix Fire on the Siskiyou Crest near the Big Red Mountain Botanical Area and Research Natural Area.

Look for more information on this blog regarding fire suppression impacts to wilderness areas, roadless areas and botanical areas sustained during the 2018 fire season.