Fire-blackened trees disappear into the fall mist like ghostly spires on the remote mountainside burned by last summer's Douglas Complex fire.
Straw has been strewn on the steep slope to stabilize the soil laid bare by the lightning-caused fires that burned some 48,700 acres — more than 76 square miles — in southern Douglas County and northern Jackson and Josephine counties.
Farther down the mountain, chainsaws rev up as workers cut small-diameter trees, felling them across the slope to further reduce erosion.
"The first thing we are doing is trying to stabilize the soil and watershed as quickly as we can," said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.
"Post fire, you get rain, soil moves, clogs culverts, gets in watersheds and creates debris dams," he added during a tour of the burned area Tuesday. "We don't want to get a situation where water runs downhill real fast."
The agency is also moving as quickly as possible to decide how much burned timber to salvage from the fires, he said.
"We need to evaluate whether salvage is the best thing to do and where to do it," he said. "We need to determine things like how many snags should be left for wildlife."
Joining BLM employees on the tour were representatives of U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley's offices in Medford along with George Sexton, conservation coordinator for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.
The BLM already has estimated hazard tree removal from both the Douglas Complex and the Big Windy Complex fires will amount to about 930,000 board feet, including 700,000 board feet on the Medford District with the remainder on the Roseburg District, Whittington estimated.
"We need to take them down so the roads are safe to travel," he said.
The hazard trees as well as those felled to create fire lines will be offered as timber sales in the short term, he said.
"As we look out towards next summer, we will be looking at salvage logging on some of the matrix lands," he said of what could be much larger timber salvage sales on land set aside for timber production. "Our goal is to figure out what the salvage looks like in the spring."
Whatever the decision, the agency will follow required environmental regulations and offer a public comment period, he said.
"The big push would be to get as much as we can done by the end of next summer," he said. "After that, it starts to get a little iffy, particularly with the small-diameter trees. They will start to lose a lot of their economic value."
Allen Bollschweiler, field manager for the BLM's Grants Pass Resource Area, has been meeting with National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to discuss protecting riparian and other sensitive areas.
"We will be working through the winter to try to get a decision out late spring," Bollschweiler said of the potential salvage amount. "But that is a very ambitious time frame."
While representatives of Wyden and Merkley declined to comment, Sexton said he wants the BLM to tread softly in the forests burned by the wildfires.
The areas in the Grave Creek and west fork of Cow Creek watersheds are among the most heavily managed forests by the BLM in Western Oregon, he said. The west fork of Cow Creek was designated a key watershed for salmon and steelhead recovery in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.
"I'm concerned about the cumulative impacts of logging off burned land," he said, noting that most adjacent county and private lands burned by the fire already have been logged off.
The conservation group would like to see much of the remaining unlogged BLM land in the region be left to recover naturally, he said.
"We're hoping they have the restraint to say that on the BLM lands we are going to get some economic return, have the least impact on what little ecology is left," he said. "We want them to focus the logging on roadside hazards, plantations that have been logged before and that matrix O&C land.
"But there has got to be a little corner of the world that is still for wildlife, for fish and watersheds," he added. "We need to protect the intact native forests land that are part of the late successional reserves."
An intact old-growth forest is much more resilient to a wildfire than a plantation, he noted.
Like most wildfires, the fires last summer burned in a mosaic, from high-severity burns to slow-burning ground fires that didn't harm the large trees.
Tom Murphy, a retired fire management officer with the Medford District who had joined the tour, said the fire burned hot as it climbed the ridge.
"You can see how the fire came up here during the peak of the burn period when it came through here," said Murphy, who helped battle the blaze. "It is almost 100 percent vegetation mortality here."
Yet green madrone leaves can already be seen poking up in the blackened earth.
"They always resprout," he said. "They are designed by nature to survive fire."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.