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Collier Memorial State Park is rebounding after fire

CHILOQUIN — Hiking, camping and kayaking likely won’t be possible at Collier Memorial State Park until next spring at the earliest because of recent forest fires, but some of the exhibits of historic logging equipment at the park are available for viewing.

More than 80 percent of the lands that make up Collier, located near Chiloquin, burned in the recent Two Four Two fire, but the park’s prime visitor areas — the 78-unit campground and the outdoor logging museum’s collection of rare and antique logging equipment — were mostly undamaged.

Although the campground, most of logging museum, most trails and access to the Spring Creek day-use area are closed, park Manager Aaron Raines said park staff are moving forward to reopen the park, something that probably won’t happen until next spring at the earliest.

“There are no guaranteed time frames,” Raines emphasized, noting immediate concerns include removing possible hazard trees from areas used by park visitors and devising plans to clean up and restore fire-fried forestlands. “It’s a good opportunity to try to determine if we can showcase other areas of the park.”

Located off Highway 97 about 90 miles from Medford and 35 miles north of Klamath Falls, the 536-acre park normally sees about 350,000 visitors annually. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic and early September’s Two Four Two fire, the park has been mostly closed since March.

In recent weeks, however, the Cookhouse, which has a gift shop, chainsaw exhibit and other items, along with the nearby restrooms, picnic tables and the Cut, Move, Mill Trail, all near the park’s main parking area, have opened. Areas on the east side of Highway 97, which lost power, including the day-use area near the Williamson River, remain closed. Raines said efforts are being focused on reopening the day-use area, which is popular with travelers.

A tour of the park showed that, incredibly, very minimal damage was done to the campground and, more important historically, the outdoor museum. Only the Bear Flat Store in the Historic Cabin Village and one of two rare McGiffert log loaders were destroyed.

“I’m so thankful,” ranger Terra Kemper said of the relatively minimal damage, especially to the outdoor museum. “This collection is unique because it is outdoors.”

The park is named for the Collier brothers of Klamath Falls. In 1945 brothers Alfred and Andrew Collier donated 146 acres for the park. Over the years the state has gradually acquired more land for the park, which is managed by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The park’s main attraction, its antique logging equipment, includes items used by Collier family business ventures. Until this year the park has annually hosted a variety of hikes, interpretive programs and “Living History Days,” when some of the historic equipment is made operable.

Destroyed was the 1906 McGiffert log loader, one of seven that exists in North America. Formerly owned and used by the McCloud Lumber Co., it was donated to the park in 1956. (Collier Park’s other McGiffert was not damaged.) The Bear Flat Store, which was built in 1908 and was originally located near Christmas Valley until being donated moved to the park in 1965, was also destroyed.

Light roof damage was also done to the Explorer’s Cabin and a log sled. A section of the Romeo and Juliet Bridge, known for its distinct arch and art deco features, was damaged but will be rebuilt.

Kemper said that although the closed area of the museum is signed and has flagging, “We’ve been very challenged by people not respecting the closure.” She noted there are concerns about fire-damaged trees that pose a public safety threat.

Raines said park closures are expected for the next several months while park staff access the damage, do necessary clean-up work and determine priorities for reopening. He stressed public participation will sought from various groups, including the Klamath Tribes.

“We will allow opportunities for the community to participate in the process,” he said,”

Raines said consideration is being given to allowing some burned areas to be left untreated “so folks can see an area of natural forest recovery.”

The fire has put trail management plans on hold as the priorities shift to identifying which burned areas need to be cut and replanted.

“We want to work really hard on how we can get the forest back,” Raines said while driving along roads through severely scarred mostly Ponderosa pine timberlands.

He credited ongoing efforts to create defensible space through thinning and other forest management practices. He believes those efforts, combined with aggressive fire-fighting crews, reduced the damaged to park facilities, including untouched park employee housing and offices.

“I think it would have been a lot more drastic if we hadn’t taken those measures.”

Trees that need to be removed for public safely will be identified and marked this week.

While most of the park’s forestlands were severely burned, only minor damage was done to the campground. Amazingly, the fire burned up to and around many campsites, but Raines said 95 percent of the sites and the bathroom had no damage.

“We’re looking forward to reopening the park,” Raines said, noting planning began during the fire. “It may take some time, and we want to do it right.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

The 536-acre park in Chiloquin normally sees about 350,000 visitors a year. Photo by Lee Juillerat
The historic Bear Flat Store in the outdoor museum was destroyed by fire. Photo by Lee Juillerat