At the risk of receiving additional “I don’t need to hear any good news about fire,” Facebook messages seen during the height of the Eagle Creek fire, “I have patiently waited until the smoke has cleared to add an even stronger scientific zing supporting the role of fire and announcing confidently that the Eagle Creek Fire was good, pretty much all good.
While the temporary loss of recreational trails and green forest aesthetics are now part of our Gorge experience, the main fact is that the recent fires have not ruined the Gorge but instead, once again, renewed it.
Just as winter gives the natural world a much needed break for a season, how nice to give wildlife a break from the ever increasing numbers of folks recreating in the Gorge. And an opportunity for recreation planners to potentially change currentplacements of popular trails to better protect riparian areas and other ecologically sensitive sites.
For a typical fire a third of the affected timber will be scorched trees, a third will be trees whose future is uncertain and a third will look unscathed. “Easily two-thirds or more of the Gorge fire is really good ecological fire,” Professor John Bailey said when he was on the ground. “And that’s why the fire does some of the fuel management for us.”As he flew over the Gorge, Oregon State University Professor John Bailey was analytical about the Eagle Creek burn. “Fire is a healthy, natural part of a forest ecosystem,” the OSU faculty member said. A century’s worth of suppressing wildfire in the United States has created conditions, especially in the West, that will ensure longer fire seasons because of longer, drier and hotter summers. Those conditions point to the need for “actively managed” forests, Bailey noted, which could include more deliberately set and managed prescribed fires.
It’s been 115 years since the Yacolt Burn, and the area affected is now a rain forest like every other rain forest in the Pacific Northwest, with only minor signs there was a catastrophic fire there in the relatively recent past. It re-grew from the ashes.
And ash is nature’s fertilizer. Plant blight, disease and insects are reduced or eliminated by burns. Mineral soil is the compost that Douglas fir seedling roots need to grow. “Dead trees” or snags are full of life. Our local woodpeckers are surely ecstatic after the Gorge fire!
Meg Krawchuk, assistant professor at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, says fire is a necessity in forest ecosystems. “We’re actually in a bit of a fire deficit when we think about this over the longer historical period,” she says.
Life will return to burned areas in short order. Fungi are already crawling around in the ashes of the fire, laying the foundation for soil that will support the plants that will constitute the early stage of the forest’s re-growth—a time when heat from the fire and sunlight newly reaching the ground in the absence of a canopy encourages a new crop of plants to firm up the soil structure that will allow gigantic trees to thrive.
Some of the plants we’ll see in the seral stage of the Gorge re-growth have a striking beauty. Fireweed, a fast-spreading flying seeder that often sets the stage for post-fire re-growth, produces pyramids of striking pinkish purple flowers. Wild blueberries and huckleberries devour the acidic soils of post-fire environments, and they’ll start to appear en masse.
This is what forests do.
“The Gorge is already blooming, transmuted by fire, growing into a beautiful new thing in itself, becoming the next beautiful thing it will be for our children.” Corbin Smith ~