The Chetco Bar fire in southwestern Oregon was the state’s biggest wildfire of 2017, burning just over 191,000 acres, mostly in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Seven homes were lost and hundreds of people had to evacuate from Brookings and nearby communities.
Now, specialists have assessed the damage to the landscape and repair work is getting underway. But the full impact will largely depend on this winter’s weather, and on management decisions that have yet to be made.
Curry County Commissioner Court Boice spoke at a community meeting about the Chetco Bar fire held in Brookings in late September.
“(It’s) absolute, immeasurable devastation,” he told the crowd. “We just lost 200,000 acres of some of the best land in the state of Oregon. Our economic setbacks are even incalculable at this time.”
Boice helped write a leaflet that was handed out at that meeting. It describes a landscape destroyed by fire, killing millions of animals, releasing huge stores of carbon dioxide, ravaging recreational areas and threatening drinking water.
A few weeks later, a team of Forest Service scientists released their analysis of the damage done by the fire. Their findings were somewhat less dire.
“It wasn’t as hot as we originally thought it was, that’s a really good thing,” says Anne Poopatanapong, a member of the Burned Area Emergency Response – or BAER – team that evaluated the Chetco Bar fire. The BAER team found only seven percent of the soils in the fire area – about 14,000 acres – had burned at high severity. In fact, 59 percent – more than 100,000 acres – had soil that burned at low or very low severity, or were completely unburned.
When it comes to burned trees, the figures are higher. More than a third of the area sustained moderate or severe tree kills.
Still, Poopatanapong says natural recovery is already underway.
“We are seeing vegetation starting to grow back and we are seeing wildlife starting to use some of those burned landscapes already. We saw a deer and birds and of course small mammals using those areas.”
Poopatanapong says popular recreation areas such as Nook Bar and Redwood Bar didn’t suffer severe soil damage, either. But the slopes that did burn severely have lost the ability to absorb much rainfall. And that could lead to erosion and degraded water quality.
But even that’s a short-term impact that has an upside, as well, Poopatanapong says.
“You’re going to have increases in nutrients down the stream, you’re going to have increases in debris flow, the stream temperature is going to change,” she says. “But in the long term, we’re going to get a lot of woody debris into the river, which is going to be great habitat for salmon.”
That said, the BAER team found many areas where roads, rivers and natural resources are at high or very high risk of damage if prompt action isn’t taken to protect them. Joni Brazier is a soil scientist and BAER team coordinator with Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. She says stabilizing roads is a major priority.
“The biggest concern for the potential for erosion reaching water bodies is really making sure that our road system is firmed up,” she says.
If roads get overwhelmed by heavy rains, they can wash out, driving tons of gravel and debris into waterways. Brazier says so-called “storm patrols” are one way to prevent that.
“We’ve received funding to make sure that we have folks out driving those roads during storm events and making sure that culverts aren’t getting plugged, and if they are, we’ve got equipment available to clear those.”
The BAER team recommended a variety of actions to stabilize slopes, remove hazard trees, repair trails, prevent the spread of invasive plant species and more. Most of that work has been approved and funded and will get underway soon.
But some damage can’t be repaired. Half the known spotted owl nesting areas and 37 percent of the marbled murrelet habitat in the burn zone were in moderate or severe burn areas. That means those areas lost 40 percent or more of their tree canopy.
Since these endangered birds need intact canopy to survive, Poopatanapong says, “… we’re going to be waiting decades or more for these habitats to recover.”
The main concern for national forest managers is to get as many of the planned treatments in place as possible before heavy winter rain storms arrive. The BAER team calculates it has a 70 to 85 percent chance of completing emergency treatments before a damaging storm hits and undoes the repairs.