By Cory Eldridge, Jonathan Soll and Katy Weil
When the first images of the Eagle Creek fire reached social media, the bereaved lovers of the Columbia River Gorge wrote post after post eulogizing the places that, from the awful photographs, seemed lost forever. Nearly all included words like “destroyed,” “death,” or “memory.”
The fire caused significant economic and emotional damage. But the gorge as a natural wonder was neither lost nor destroyed. The Eagle Creek fire, tragic as it was, has created an opportunity for people to witness a natural process often hidden in far-flung wilderness. For the rest of our lives, we have the opportunity to see the rebirth and coming of age of a forest.
Let’s take a walk in the forest, starting immediately after the fire and trekking to see the forest in the first spring, a few years from now, and five and 20 years in the future.
After the flames are out
The forest is not as charred as you imagined. There are cliff faces that seem as though a charcoal waterfall flowed over them, leaving nothing but matchstick trees. From the top of one Douglas fir tree, flames reached to ignite the low branches of its upslope neighbor, creating a wall of flames.
For every burned-out mountain slope, there’s another that’s as green as it ever was. Even the heavily burned areas are dotted with half-scorched trees and trees that didn’t seem to even notice the fire. More common are the swathes of rusty brown where the needles of evergreens roasted but never ignited.
Walk under the canopy, and you’ll see a similar mosaic. In one spot, the ground is covered in charcoal limbs and carbonized fern fronds. Ten yards away, saplings, shrubs and ferns soak up the sun. One side of a big Douglas fir is scarred, the other hardly touched. There are damaged trees everywhere. Many of them won’t survive their injuries or the diseases that follow but many will carry on.
The soil tells the same story. Areas baked hot by smoldering logs and the collective heat of hundreds of burning tree trunks are dead, but only temporarily. Leaf litter and decomposed leaves and twigs burned off the surface. Roots, seeds, mycelia (mushroom roots) and the bacteria that make soil a living thing are consumed or killed by the heat. Already, though, the trees are dropping needles and twigs that will fertilize the soil. In many places, the soil and its mysterious unseen world remain alive to launch a new forest.
Most heartening: Just weeks after the fire, grasses are growing.
Spring has arrived, and young greenery explodes in all but the most intensely burned areas. Shrubs like mock orange, snowberry and kinnikinnick stretch into open spaces. Post-fire specialists like fireweed and morel mushrooms boom. Resprouting trees like maples, oaks and madrones bounce back with new growth from their undamaged roots.
For animals, the action is in the dead but still standing trees called snags.
Trees killed in forest fires are not ghosts of the forest past; they’re vital members of the forest community and stand witness to the cycle of life. Before the fire, the nutritious insides of the trees were off limits, but now the trees’ defenses are diminished. To insects, the snag is like a grilled onion: burned on the outside, sweet and tender on the inside. This first spring, insects are already feasting and laying broods that will have more food than their kind has seen in hundreds, maybe thousands, of generations. Their populations will erupt, and the birds will come.
Some birds are fire specialists rarely seen in the gorge. Olive-sided flycatchers arrive for the bug bonanza and several types of woodpeckers move into some of the most burned areas, drilling and digging out holes in the snags to get after bark beetles. The woodpeckers are also creating habitat for other animals slowly making their way back to the forest.
When you head back to the Columbia River Gorge for a hike, keep an eye out for these birds and plants that make up some of the first species to return to the forest after a wildfire.
The next few years
When you hike in the gorge two or three years from now, you’ll see the regrowth from that first spring filling out. Shrubs are maturing, and grasses and wildflowers are abundant. This is called the early seral stage. Because of current fire management and modern forestry practices, early seral habitats are rare in the area’s forests. But they are an important component of a healthy landscape.
Early seral plants are mega food producers, pumping out nectar, pollen, seeds, and tender leaves and shoots. That attracts pollinators like bees and flies, grass-eaters from tiny insects to massive elk, and seed-loving wildlife like mice and birds. All of these, of course, bring in predators, from hawks and owls to foxes and cougars. Everyone has plenty to eat.
Even severely burned areas now show signs of recovery as the soil is slowly renewed by nutrient-rich dust and seeds carried by wind and animals. Little conifer sprouts start to grow.
5 years later
By now it’s difficult to spot signs of the fire in many places. But your keen eye knows that the snags are the clearest legacy. At this point, it’s hard to argue that a snag is dead: its tree life may be over, but it’s full of life. In this area, more than 100 animals live in snags, including mammals, amphibians, birds, bugs and reptiles.
Since they arrived, the woodpeckers never stopped excavating new holes. Now there are more holes than woodpeckers, but the forest provides plenty of new tenants. Wood ducks, owls, bluebirds, chickadees, brown creepers and nuthatches move in. Northern flying squirrels and Douglas squirrels make homes in the smaller holes while raccoons, gray foxes and pine martens den up in the big ones. Without the woodpeckers, these animals would be homeless.
Reptiles struggle to escape fires, and their populations suffer mightily. It’s not until now that the gorge’s scaly residents like garter snakes and northern alligator lizards make it back.
20 years later
For us, the fire seems like a long-ago event. The hardest-hit areas, the places that lost most or all of their trees, will largely be meadows of grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers abuzz with insects and birds, crawling with mice and lizards. But you’ll see trees making
a slow march. The conifers, maples and oaks that began to grow the first spring after the fire have birthed their own seedlings and saplings.
About now, snags enter the last stage of their post-tree existence. For two decades, beetles, worms and fungi have eaten away at their roots, and the trunks finally fall. Still, the log has decades – maybe even two centuries – of life to give. Lying there, it shelters wildlife, adds nutrients to the soil and even becomes a nursery for the tree seedlings that will take its place.
This is why scientists call large snags and logs legacy trees. They are an inheritance for the young forest from the old. The fire in the Columbia River Gorge didn’t take away that inheritance. The fire gave it.