The view from ground zero at Oregon’s biggest fire in 100 years

  This Halloween I camped in the frozen ash near ground zero of the 499,968-acre Biscuit Fire, the nation's largest wildfire of 2002, and the biggest in Oregon for a century.


My wife was not wild about the idea. The Pacific Northwest's largest newspaper, The Oregonian, had just promoted a three-part feature on Biscuit, billing it as the "monster fire." Word was that this inferno had engulfed most of Southwest Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest, including every square inch of the remote Kalmiopsis Wilderness.


But as the author of half a dozen Oregon outdoor guidebooks, I needed to see the effects of the fire on the ground, and the Forest Service had finally opened roads into the fire zone that week. Janell reluctantly agreed to join me. No life stirred in the moonless night as we drove through black woods down a long dirt road. At the primitive trailhead camp, ash puffed with each footstep as we set up the tent in the glare of the car's headlights. We crawled deep into our sleeping bags and slept as if dead.


We awoke in a strange new world. The fire had swept through this area, burning nearly everything at ground level. But the tops of the taller trees were green, and large areas nearby had not burned at all, especially along creeks and in valleys.


For the next three days, as we explored the Kalmiopsis Wilderness from different trailheads, we discovered that this monster fire was not the destroyer we had feared. The blaze had tidied up the woods with the care of a fastidious maintenance crew, pruning the lower branches of old-growth trees and clearing away underbrush of manzanita and poison oak.


Our hike along the Illinois River Trail showed how well-adapted to fire these sparse, dry forests are. Even in the few areas where the forest was dense enough to burn hot, turning trees into black snags, wreaths of green were sprouting around the tree bases.


Just three months after the fire, most of the burned deciduous trees such as oaks were growing from their roots. Even Darlingtonia, the insect-eating pitcher plant of the area's hillside bogs, was coming back strong. Dozens of green shoots rose from the scorched remnants of older plants, like miniature green baseball bats emerging from the ooze. One surprise was that the fire burned the ground itself -- the moss and duff that covers steep hillsides of this canyon land. Without that ground cover, rocks had slid down onto many of the trails. Everyone knows that rolling stones gather no moss, but it's less obvious that moss keeps stones from rolling.


Another oddity was the holes we found snaking through burned ground. It looked as if a giant had repeatedly poked his hand into the ashy dirt, leaving 10-foot tubes where the fingers had been. We realized these holes must be the casts of ancient stumps and roots.


After the fire swept through, dry wood must have smoldered underground for months, gradually turning to ash. We found proof for that theory the next day, when we hiked to Babyfoot Lake. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness has few lakes. One of the largest, Babyfoot Lake, would be rated as a large pond elsewhere. Here in the Klamath Mountains of Southwest Oregon, it's a major attraction. I worried that the Biscuit Fire had left it desolate.


The hike was not encouraging. For a mile, the trail traverses one of the bleakest forests inside the wilderness. At an elevation of 4,000 feet, this area had a dense stand of big, even-aged Douglas firs. The fire had ripped through the crowns, leaving black spires. Since the blaze, the burned stubs of beargrass had put out the area's only fresh leaves, and they'd been nibbled back by hungry deer. As we ate lunch by the lake, we noticed a wisp of smoke still curling from a smoldering snag, a last breath of the Biscuit Fire.


At the lake itself, moisture from the cool water had preserved a ring of green around the shore, making the lake the calm eye of the area's firestorm. I climbed to a bluff high above the lake for a wider view. Yes, the lakeshore was a circle of green in a small black spot, but beyond stretched 40 miles of wilderness where virtually all of the old-growth trees had survived. In this larger picture, the forest had been rejuvenated, not devastated.


Janell and I are fond of the Kalmiopsis, having backpacked through its wilds on trips since the 1970s. We came away from our visit reassured that our old friend was still as wild and beautiful as ever. Time will make it more so.


Bill Sullivan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Eugene, Oregon.