Reconsidering the effects of fire on favorite, familiar places

By Jayson Jacoby September 16, 2011 04:00 pm

I remember when what you saw when you crossed the Santiam Pass was, mainly, trees.

Live trees, to be specific.

Conifers, to be more specific yet.

Trees are still the most conspicuous form of vegetation at this 4,817-foot gap in the Central Oregon Cascades.

But quite a lot of the trees are dead.

Fire killed them. Their scorched needles have long since dropped. Their blackened bark has peeled away revealing the gray boles, bleached a trifle closer to white with each cruel winter.

The blaze that killed most of the trees beside Highway 20 through the pass was the B&B Complex. The complex started as two lightning-caused fires that combined in August 2003 and eventually burned about 91,000 acres.

The B&B Complex is the largest in a series of fires that have over the past decade dramatically changed the landscape around the Santiam Pass.

It is an ideal place to impart a lesson on fire ecology. And the Forest Service has obliged by installing near the highway several of the “interpretive panels” with which the agency is so enamored. The pass, which is the only year-round route across the Cascades between Mount Hood and Willamette Pass, is also the most direct link between the Willamette Valley and Central Oregon’s glut of golf courses, resorts and ski areas.

A lot of traffic goes through.

I went that way just last weekend, in part because Interstate 84 induces narcolepsy, but mostly because I wanted to see the latest blaze. The Shadow Mountain fire, on the flanks of Mount Washington several miles south of the pass, was started by lightning in late August and has burned about 10,000 acres.

I wished I had brought a camera.

(Or remembered that my cell phone has a camera among its many cunning features.)

From the highway grade above Suttle Lake I could see, a few miles to the south, the orange glow where trees were torching.

The smoke was so thick I could barely make out the distinctive pyramidal shape of Mount Washington. This extinct volcano, most of its bulk excised by glaciers, is the Oregon Cascades’ most credible imitation of the Swiss Matterhorn, albeit in about one-third scale.

Aside from the scenery, I was thinking about how complicated the topic of forest fires is.

It was not always so.

Even as recently as, say, 20 years ago, American society’s basic attitude toward wildfires was still best expressed by a fictional bear clad in dungarees and clutching a shovel in one paw.

Smokey Bear’s mantra — “Only you can prevent forest fires” — exemplifies the highest achievements in propaganda. It’s concise, simple and memorable.

(Never mind that it’s also grossly unrealistic. Lightning, not you or me or the careless cad who tosses his cigarette out the window, starts a significant percentage of forest fires in Oregon — about eight in 10 on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.)

Smokey’s message lacks any trace of ambiguity. Fire is bad, and it must be stopped. This afternoon, if possible.

What we’ve come to understand, though, is that Smokey’s slogan ignores a slew of ecological matters that are far too complex to cram into a bumper sticker.

(Unless, of course, your bumper has space for a master’s thesis. This would require an awful lot of glue, as well.)

We know that, in some cases and some places, letting a fire burn is better for the forest than putting it out.

Generally speaking, these are the places where, before the Forest Service and other agencies came along early in the 20th century and started dousing flames as soon as they could summon a ranger with a shovel and an ax, fires sparked by lightning (and in some cases by American Indians) typically burned every decade or so.

These historic blazes were gentle things, relatively speaking, and they rarely killed mature trees.

Rather, the flames charred seedlings, limbs, needles and other debris that, if left to accumulate, could act as a “ladder” that flames could climb to reach the tallest trees’ crowns.

In Northeastern Oregon, as well as Central Oregon, the forests that historically had such a short “fire return interval” are mainly lower-elevation stands where the ponderosa pine is the predominant tree.

The Forest Service and other agencies that manage public lands have in effect replaced lightning over the past couple decades by purposely igniting fires in such areas during the spring or fall. These “prescribed” fires have caused little controversy — they don’t as a rule burn anybody’s house or ruin a favorite hunting spot.

But blazes like the B&B Complex, which performed such a major makeover on the Santiam Pass, are a different matter altogether.

Hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, who used to relish the shade cast by mountain hemlocks, now toil in torrid temperatures on August afternoons as they climb north from the pass through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.

Campers who pitch their tents every summer at the mountain lake where Grandpa learned to fish for brook trout bemoan the mess that the fire left.

Yet the B&B Complex, though its effects were vastly more widespread and obvious, was no less “natural,” as it were, than those sluggish prescribed fires that federal employees light each year in the ponderosa woods.

The forests around the pass are both higher and wetter. Fires rarely survive for long there. But when a particular combination of conditions coincides, the resulting fire tends to be what foresters call a “stand-replacing event.” These blazes, which happen on average once a century rather than once a decade, kill most of the mature trees.

Now one of those hypothetical hikers or campers I mentioned might ask, and quite reasonably, why don’t we put out, or at least shackle, big fires such as the B&B Complex?

The answer is twofold.

First, we don’t put them out because we can’t. Not quickly, anyway.

The circumstances that give life to these fires — single-digit humidity, temperatures in the 90s and brisk winds — also render ineffective, if not impotent, the best (and most expensive) firefighting technology the federal government can muster.

The B&B Complex, by the way, rang up a tab of $39 million.

Second, and something that is within our power, we shouldn’t necessarily try to extinguish such blazes even if we could figure out how to do it.

Fire scientists have concluded, based on decades of research, that by squelching every fire over a long period — in effect, by lengthening the natural fire return interval — we make it more likely that when a fire does inevitably get going, that it will burn hotter than past blazes did.

The reasons for this phenomenon are varied and unpredictable. But as an example, excluding fire for unnaturally long intervals can contribute to infestations of tree-killing insects or outbreaks of diseases that are abnormally severe.

Dead trees, needless to say, tend to take a spark rather more readily than live ones do.

And of course the greater the period between fires, the more flammable stuff piles up on the ground — the very situation that prescribed fires are intended to avoid.

According to a study from the Oregon State University College of Forestry, the B&B Complex “had impacts on natural resources that were ... greater than those experienced historically.” OSU researchers attributed this in part to the government’s anti-fire campaign, which over the past century made forests in parts of Oregon more vulnerable to insects and disease. In the case of the B&B Complex, the study’s authors wrote, the major culprit was “massive outbreaks of the western spruce budworm in the 1990s that created ideal tinder for subsequent wildfire.”

The conclusions of science don’t always agree, of course, with the expectations of the public.

Fires such as the B&B Complex inflame the conflict between people, who quite understandably judge whether an event is positive or negative based on how it affects their comparatively brief lives, and natural processes, which are far less ephemeral.

Those hikers and campers, for instance, might well understand that the 2003 fire was only the latest blaze in a sequence far more ancient than the pyramids. They might even concede that any effort to interrupt this cycle is not only destined to fail but also has the potential — as with the spruce budworm infestation and its effect on the severity of the B&B Complex — to lead to a true catastrophe.

Yet that understanding doesn’t cool a sweaty brow during a steep climb, or restore Grandpa’s old lakeside camp.

I’m prone to such complaints myself.

As I said, I remember when the deep green crowded the Santiam highway, throwing shade clear across the asphalt (and beware the ice on the dark corners).

How the white-burdened limbs lay flat, like the arms of a soldier standing at attention, in the hours after a heavy fall of snow.

It was a beautiful place. Today it looks quite different.

But I try to console myself by thinking of these changes not as scars but rather as the forest’s version of wrinkles in skin. I imagine these blemishes that meander across a loved one’s face, these fissures which over the passage of years alter the familiar landscape, yet in no way diminish the depth of our feelings for the person.

Besides which, much in the way that the owner of a hilltop home will prune the foliage to improve the vista, the fire has afforded travelers across the pass a much clearer view of Three Fingered Jack.

Which happens to be my favorite among the Cascades’ peaks.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.