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Whiskey rebellion

This summer was a tale of two fires along the little-walked Whiskey Creek Trail deep in the recesses of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest south of Applegate Lake.

Just 10 feet above the base of massive Shasta fir trees, the lichen hangs like green beards, suggesting that this sliver of the Miller Complex fire offered a rather gentle burn.

"It didn't have that hot burn," says Brian Long, the forest's district recreation manager. "It was just skunking around."

But below Long's feet is evidence that skunking can be bad for trails.

The fire burned off the duff and moss keeping the slope's soils intact, allowing even small rains to slough away portions of the Whiskey Creek Trail.

Now a federal-private partnership is starting to snatch trail victory from wildfire defeat, moving in to start rehabbing and returning trail sections damaged by this summer's Miller Complex and other fires on Southern Oregon's federal lands.

The Forest Service is partnering with the Ashland-based Siskiyou Mountain Club to identify trail sections that were damaged in the Miller Complex and using a combination of club crews and other volunteers to get to work on remedying problems now before more harsh weather kicks in.

They have targeted 23 miles over five trails, such as Whiskey Creek Trail, for initial rehab now within the Miller Complex burn and not delaying work until spring like in past fire seasons.

"We don't want to lose a single trail mile to the 2017 fire season," says Gabe Howe, executive director of the club. "That's our pledge."

On the afternoon of Aug. 14, a series of lightning storms raced through the Siskiyous, igniting 15 different fires that collectively became known as the Miller Complex. They burned 39,715 acres before being fully contained Nov. 9 — only after a series of rain and snow storms quelled flames to a smolder.

It is still considered an active fire, and some public closures remain in place there for human-safety concerns.

Long has since applied for and received about $23,000 in grants for this year and next year through the Burned Area Emergency Response, also known as BAER, for immediate trail rehab after first surveying the Miller Complex areas where fire burned through trails.

In most cases, trail rehabbers are most interested in reversing damage done in fire areas where the burn was more intense, Long says. This time, however, he was surprised to find heavy damage to the trail tread in less-intense burns like the one that skunked through the Whiskey Creek Trail, he says.

"I really wasn't expecting that side of it," Long says. "It's a little different."

So is rehabbing a steep-sloped trail like Whiskey Creek, an unmarked trail to the old Whiskey Peak fire lookout recently reopened by the club.

Trail-builders primarily swing Pulaskis, the normal do-everything hoe and pickax that are the staples of trail work and wildland firefighting. Of use here, however, is the McCloud, a thick and multi-toothed rake that can push larger amounts of loose material.

Club crew leader Aaron Babcock expects to be wielding his McCloud on the Whiskey Creek Trail often this winter.

"You clean up the tread, but you know more will keep coming down," he says. "Erosion here is the biggest problem.

On Wednesday, a small crew including two volunteers scrambled over, around and even crawled under downed and burned snags littering the trail. Knowing more trees will invariably litter the trail during rains and spring snowmelt, Babcock says he won't bother cutting them out until next year.

"It's more cost-effective to come in here once instead of three or four times," he says.

Howe says he will schedule several trail-work days for volunteers on various trails this winter, setting dates based on weather forecasts. Dates will be announced on the club website at www.siskiyoumountainclub.org and its Facebook page.

"People really want to help," Howe says. "It's putting places like this on people's radars."

But the remnant damage caused to Whiskey Creek Trail will linger far past the volunteer crews' time here, Howe says.

While trees are sliding over the trail now, others damaged by the skunking flames will eventually rot out and fall, Howe says.

"By then, everyone will have forgotten about the 2017 fires," Howe says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jason Middleton, REI sales manager, left, and Gabe Howe, executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, work on a burned section of the Whiskey Creek Trail near Applegate Lake Wednesday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]
Brian Long, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest district recreation manager, hikes along a portion of the Whiskey Creek Trail damaged by fire this year. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]