I’ve found there is huge public interest and concern about the catastrophic effects of the Eagle Creek Fire on the Columbia River Gorge. Pictures of ridgeline after ridgeline enveloped in bright orange fire, trees bursting into towering flames, and the choking smoke that filled valleys throughout the Pacific Northwest are truly a hellish image of Armageddon visited on the entire area. But, while the temporary loss of recreational trails and green forest aesthetics, and the increased potential for landslides and falling snags are inconvenient and even somewhat dangerous, the truth is that the recent fires have not ruined the natural areas of the West and the Gorge in particular, but instead have refreshed and renewed them.
This past summer I’ve been interpreting geology for a new Columbia Gorge Master Naturalist Program, working beside forest ecology experts who are extremely optimistic regarding the effects of the Eagle Creek Fire. One of those experts, wildlife habitat expert Bill Weiler, writes, “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. 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.”
In a typical forest fire a third of the trees will be scorched and dead, a third will be moderately to severely damaged, and a third will be essentially unscathed. Reports from the Eagle Creek Fire describe that fire as a discontinuous “mosaic burn” with much less devastation even than the typical forest fire burn.
There is a broad consensus among scientists that we have considerably less fire of all intensities in our Western U.S. forests compared with natural, historical levels, when lightning-caused fires burned without humans trying to put them out. Early in the 20th century, before fire suppression became the norm, the average annual burn area in the western states was over 25 million acres, compared to a recent average of 4-6 million acres.
According to Oregon State University Professor John Bailey, 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 which could include more deliberately set and managed prescribed fires. “Easily two-thirds or more of the Gorge fire is really good ecological fire,” Professor Bailey said, “the fire does some of the fuel management for us.”
There is an equally strong consensus among scientists that fire is essential to maintain ecologically healthy forests and native biodiversity. This includes large fires and patches of intense fire, which create an abundance of biologically essential standing snags and naturally stimulate regeneration of vigorous new stands of forest. These areas of “snag forest habitat” are ecological treasures, not catastrophes, and many native wildlife species depend on this habitat to survive. More than 260 scientists wrote to Congress in 2015 noting that snag forests are “quite simply some of the best wildlife habitat in forests. ”
Much of the Eagle Creek Fire burn area is currently closed to civilian activities due to the danger from flare-ups, rock slides and falling snags. The fire is less than 50% contained due to the ruggedness and inaccessibility of much of the area. Though it is still burning it is not expected to flare-up again until Winter rains and snow completely douse the embers. If restrictions are adequately lifted in the Spring the Columbia River Gorge Chapter of IAFI will offer a combined geology and ecology field trip in the Gorge, probably in late April. Keep an eye on the IAFI.org calendar in early 2018 for details and registration.