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Life after the burn

Life persists in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, charred but not destroyed in last year's fires

Judy McHugh feared the worst when she first hiked to Babyfoot Lake after the Biscuit fire ran rampant through the Siskiyou National Forest.

The nearly half-million-acre fire, the largest in the nation last year, had blocked the popular path with downed charred trees, boot-deep ash and ankle-snapping holes where giant tree roots once grew.

Initially, it was very difficult for those of us who work here and who visit and love the place to see everything changed so radically, observed the Forest Service's spokeswoman for the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project.

It's been a very humble experience, seeing what this fire did, she added.

— Yet she and other visitors in the aftermath of the fire discovered the tranquil lake largely unchanged, albeit much of the vegetation surrounding it was scorched, save for a ring of green trees and brush at the water's edge.

To find that we had a little piece of a special place that remained the same after all of this was a real gift, she said during a return to the glacially formed lake last week.

Tucked just inside of the west side of the 183,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, the lake is about 10 air miles west of Kerby, a hamlet about 25 road miles south of Grants Pass.

Like most venturing into the fire-burned wilderness area deep in the Siskiyou forest, she will tell you many special places within the wilderness remain after the fire.

The region is noted for its rich botanical diversity. There are some 200 species of trees, shrubs, herbs, lichens, mosses and fungi along the Babyfoot Trail itself.

Rare Brewer spruce, with its telltale weeping boughs, Port Orford and incense cedar and red and Douglas fir still ring the lake. The gentle fragrance of peach-colored azaleas wafts along the shore.

Yet officials warn people revisiting forest sites they frequented before the fire to approach with caution and an open mind. The annual tourist season normally begins in earnest this month, drawing well over half a million to the forest.

Of those, several thousand are expected to venture into the wilderness.

Although burned in a mosaic pattern by the fire sparked by lightning strikes in mid-July 2002, there are areas in the wilderness such as the Babyfoot Lake Trail where it roared like a giant blowtorch.

At the Babyfoot trailhead itself, the old wooden signs have been burned to the ground along with the restrooms.

Onion Camp, a historic camping site just outside the wilderness about a mile as the raven flies to the north of the Babyfoot trailhead, was blackened by fire.

Inside the wilderness, the historic Emily Cabin along the Little Chetco River is now history. The fire also burned several footbridges as it marched through.

More than a dozen trailhead bulletin boards, marking signs and wilderness registration boxes were burned by the fire.

With many trail signs and landmark trees turned to ashes, officials warn that it's easy to get lost in the wilderness that has gained a reputation in recent years for turning folks around.

We are enthusiastic about people coming back to see this, McHugh said. But we want folks to be cautious. We have a great number of dead trees now.

As evidence, she pointed out one tall burned tree standing along the Babyfoot Lake Trail. It was hollow at the base, with only a thin strip supporting it on one side.

Up here on this ridge, you want to be real aware on windy days that we have large, dead trees that are eventually going to fall, she said.

A few may have fallen by the end of the day. Others may fall next week, next year or five years from now.

But they will all fall, warned Rene Casteran, wilderness ranger for the Kalmiopsis for 17 years.

Every dead tree you see standing will be coming down sooner or later, Casteran said.

In terms of wilderness, it was not a negative event, he said. The damage that was done was to manmade things.

Casteran, who will eventually check out all the trails in the burned area, has already hiked several trails in the ashes of the fire as part of his job.

The tread in some sections is a lot rougher now, he said. There are a lot of burned-out roots and rocks on the trails.

Although he has yet to hike on the east side since the fire, he has received reports from hikers who have plunged into the wilderness from the Babyfoot Lake trailhead. Some sections of the trails are criss-crossed with downed trees, he said.

Most of the trail signs are gone, he said. There are areas that look a lot different now than they did before the fire.

Trail maintenance is scheduled for the summer, he said, adding that all the burned trail signs will be replaced.

The 27-mile-long Illinois River Trail through the wilderness is open, although not fully maintained.

Last week, a young group from the Jobs Council in Josephine County worked on the mile-long Babyfoot Lake Trail. They filled holes and removed trees that had fallen across it.

Longtime Illinois Valley resident Steve Marsden, a biologist active in the environmental movement, hiked with fellow activist Linda Serrano through the northern section of the wilderness in May. He makes the trek each spring.

I never saw so many wildflowers as I did this trip, he reported. There were so many fawn lilies blooming it looked like snow.

They followed a historic trail system north from Onion Camp to Pearsoll Peak, then west out of the wilderness down the Chetco River drainage.

We took the old County Line Trail that has always been difficult because it was so overgrown, he said. The fire actually made it easier to hike this time.

As it did outside the wilderness, the fire burned hot in some areas while leaving large islands untouched elsewhere, he reported.

Psychologically, it's upsetting to some people to see what the fire did, he said. But we're just here on this planet for a short time. The wilderness has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Fire is part of that evolution. It's hard for us to adjust to that time frame.

Serrano, who returned to the wilderness a week ago to hike through the southern section, emerging at Vulcan Lake, found conditions similar in both sections of the wilderness.

I got pretty blackened on both hikes, she said. Anytime you put your pack down you are going to get charred.

But there was an amazing amount of wildflowers, she added. You see a lot of lilies and paintbrushes.

A veteran hiker of the region before the fire, she also encountered a few rattlesnakes and spotted fresh bear scat.

It's still so fabulous, so wild and beautiful, she said, adding, I love it out there. It's my church.

More people can be expected to attend Mother Nature's services in the wilderness this summer, if the first-ever visitor use survey of the Siskiyou last year is any indication.

Although use was undoubtedly skewed by the fire, which closed down the forest for three of its busiest visitor months, the forest still had 648,591 visits in 2002, according to Jerry Darbyshire, a recreational specialist with the Chetco Ranger District. The Forest Service conducted the survey.

Of those visits, which reflect everything from a casual drive into the forest to a lengthy camping trip, 4,549 were into the forest's three wilderness areas, including Grassy Knob and the Wild Rogue Wilderness.

However, given the fact the Kalmiopsis is by far the largest, it was likely the destination of most of the wilderness visits, he said.

Most visits to the forest are in July and August, he said.

Many people are interested in what happened to the forest after the fire, he said. What I've found is that you feel a loss but are intrigued at the same time by what happened. You tend to get mixed emotions.

Gold Beach resident Allen Wilson, who has a special use permit to guide folks into the area as part of his Wilderness Canyon Adventures, doesn't expect the fire to have a large impact on his business.

I really haven't had many inquiries in relationship to what impact the fire had, he said. But it sure shut me down last year.

A former guide in Arizona's Grand Canyon, Wilson has had one trip thus far this year but noted the busy time of year is still to come. His trips usually take visitors on a float down the Chetco River in the wilderness.

With a natural event like this, people will be really curious, he said. If you go in there with curiosity, you'll have a good trip.

A good trip into the burned area will include treating it with respect, McHugh said.

Research after the 1987 Silver Fire, which burned around 100,000 acres in the forest, including a large portion of the wilderness, found that five to seven years afterwards the greatest trail maintenance work was required, McHugh said.

But that doesn't mean trees won't fall before then, she cautioned.

There are hazards inside the burned area, she said. We want folks to be very conscious of that.

Humans also pose a threat to the burned area, she said.

Visitors should follow the no trace philosophy of camping and hiking in the wilderness.

It's especially important now to stay on trails, she said. There are places out here that no longer have vegetation. We need to give the area time to recover.

Officials warn visitors to use caution Anyone venturing into the area of the Siskiyou National Forest burned by last year's Biscuit Fire is urged to be extremely cautious, particularly if they are going into the wilderness.

They should let a family member or close friend know where they are going and their timetable.

A visit to a Forest Service office to check on conditions is also recommended before heading out.

Officials warn visitors to watch out for the following in the fire-burned area:

Rolling rocks and logs

Falling snags and limbs

Downed trees blocking trails

Poor footing because of ash, loose rocks and holes caused by burned-out roots

Burned or missing trail signs.

' Paul Fattig

Wildflowers like these Indian paintbrushes are growing profusely in areas burned by last year?s Biscuit fire. People venturing back into the area are finding devastation ? and many ecological gems left untouched. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven