January 16, 2013

Change Can Have a Silver Lining

Reflection on the B&B Complex Fire

In August and September of 2003, the Bear Butte and Booth Fires, together called the B&B complex, burned over 90,000 acres of forest in the Oregon Cascades near Santiam Pass. The fires, started by lightning strikes on the east slopes of the Cascades, burned for over a month, crossing the crest and burning popular recreation areas along the Pacific Crest Trail, through the Eight Lakes Basin, and the shores of Marion Lake.

In September of 2012, nine years after the fires, I spent a weekend hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail through the burned-over section. I had hiked this route many times in the past, but this was my first visit since the fires.

Landscape ecologists understand fire as a necessary process that shapes ecosystems. We've learned that fire suppression might delay fire, but can't eliminate it in the long run; suppression lets fuels build up and makes the fires bigger when they eventually, inevitably, ignite. Fire will continue to shape ecosystems with or without our consent. But even if we accept fire as a natural process, we still don't like the idea of conflagrations roaring through places we know and love, turning lush forests and meadows into what seem like blackened wastelands. Wastelands that, seen from human lifespans, seem effectively permanent; if this area ever grows back into a forest resembling the one I knew, it's unlikely that I'll still be around to see it.

So I left the trailhead at Santiam Pass, itself inside the burned area, with some concern about what I'd find along the way. Before the fires, this area was densely covered in douglas-fir, hemlock, lodgepole pine, and ponderosa. To hike here was to walk through shady woods, with sunny openings appearing rarely, distant views even rarer. Nine years after the fire, I found the contours of the trail vaguely familiar, but little else. Most of the blackened and charred wood had weathered away, leaving an open woodland of silvered snags; grass and ferns filled the sunny spaces between the trunks. The terrain was dotted with seedlings of silver fir and mountain hemlock, standing 18-24" tall; young lodgepole pines, a fire-adapted species, were twice that height. Plump huckleberries grew in the sunshine where once there was deep shade. The new openness of the once-thick forest opened up expansive views. What was a contemplative walk among tall trees had become a continuously unfolding panorama of distant peaks and buttes, valleys and lakes. Perhaps more of a surprise was the view of the nearer terrain; the topographical details of the ridges and ravines through which the trail winds had become visible, had become more than simply the rises and dips in a trail winding through the woods.

I was hiking during High Cascade buck season, and camo-clad hunters were also on the trail. I hiked a couple of miles with one hunter on his way back in to pack out another load, and we talked about the effect of the fires on the hunting; they had, he said, "immeasurably improved" it. The newly open woods provide more food for wildlife and better sight lines for hunters. "Protecting structures", he said, "is the only reason for fighting forest fires".

In the Eight Lakes Basin, an area beloved by generations of fisherman and campers, old campsites along the lakes had burned; trees that had long served to support tarps and clothesline were charred snags. But new growth covered the ground, the sun streamed in through the snags, and the trail was newly graced with views of the lakes and surrounding peaks.

I walked thirty-odd miles over two days, perhaps half of it in burned areas. I walked through those areas with mixed feelings - with sadness at what had been lost, with surprise at how fast new plants were filling in, with almost continuous surprise at the openness and the views and the new way I could appreciate the terrain. And the deep forests of the unburned areas provided contrast and respite and continuity with the past.

Heraclitus famously said that no man ever steps into the same river twice; rivers are always changing, different from one moment to the next. Forests, too, are always changing, and perhaps we expect too much if we expect to walk in the same one on every visit. Economists use the term "creative destruction" to describe the damage done to some sectors of an economy as it's reshaped by innovation. I'm going to try in the future to look at fires as subjecting the forest to an analogous sort of creative destruction. My walk that weekend showed me that even violent, apparently cataclysmic change can have a silver lining.

About the author:
Ken Ferschweiler
Senior Software Architect | Modeler
Ken is a Senior Software Architect and Modeler at Conservation Biology Institute. His work focuses primarily on the climate change model, MC1.
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