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
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
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.
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.