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Portals to wildfire

Cher Rydberg ambles down the first few yards of the Cold Springs Trail as if her visit with an old friend will be just like the past 20 years she's hiked this popular Sky Lakes Wilderness Area trail.

But some of the trees in familiar stands of Shasta fir and hemlock now sport black scars on their bases. Two more turns down the trail, and those stains give way to vast swaths of pure black, the calling card of wildfire.

Large stands of torched and nearly branchless trees point skyward like charcoal toothpicks over a brushless and sooty forest floor. The only color is a golden blanket of scorched hemlock needles blown from branches after the flames moved through here.

"It's so profound," Rydberg says. "You just stop and take it in. You can't believe it, down to the burnt smell. This is not the forest I remember. This is not the forest I know."

As 2017's summer wildfire season winds down, the first of dozens of trails in wildfire areas are starting to re-open, serving as public portals into the aftermath of these backwoods natural disasters.

The trails lead into more than a quarter-million acres of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest that lie within active wildfire footprints where flames burned in a patchwork fashion, sometimes intensely like they did through the Cold Springs Trail.

Forest officials are conducting post-fire evaluations called Burn Area Emergency Responses to assess the impacts of both wildfire and suppression activity on communities and forest resources, including trails.

Until those assessments are complete later this fall, huge swaths of the fire areas remain off-limits to the public, with falling snags and potential landslides clear threats to recreators, forest officials say.

"We know people are very curious about what these areas look like and, unfortunately, they're violating the closures," says Chamise Kramer, spokeswoman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "We're really hoping that people can be a little patient."

The impatient, however, can plan legal forays into fresh wildfire zones within the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area using Cold Springs or other trails, such as Tom and Jerry and Red Blanket Creek outside of Prospect.

"Right after the fire is when it looks the worst to most people," says Gabe Howe, executive director of the Ashland-based Siskiyou Mountain Club, which maintains area trails, including an estimated 59 miles burned during the Chetco Bar fire outside of Brookings.

"But at the same time, it can be really informative to watch the changes these places go through, the succession," Howe says. "There's a certain beauty to that as opposed to an undisturbed forest. It definitely has a dramatic effect sometimes."

A close look at burned snags, for instance, reveals stark yet artful patterns of ebony etched in the wood. Long, halfpipe-like depressions in the soil demonstrate where entire downed trees incinerated, leaving in their wake wisps of ash still shaped like bark.

A look above shows that many of these charcoal toothpicks rise more than 100 feet from the ground, so a fractured crown would garner a hefty head of steam if it should come crashing down.

"I tell people to go in with an open mind and be safe," Howe says. "Right after these fires, there can be a lot of instabilities."

On the Cold Springs Trail, Rydberg says the warning sign at the trailhead dramatically understates the potential pitfalls of hiking here.

"I can't believe they're letting me in here," Rydberg says. "I can't believe they trust me to be safe."

All around her, burned snags lie on the forest floor, their dusty and uncharred root balls revealing that they have fallen since the flames moved through.

Falling snags are a prime post-fire hazard, with some of them standing for several years before randomly crashing to the earth.

The sound of one such crash within earshot of Rydberg becomes a bit unnerving to her.

"We might not come out of this alive, especially if the wind picks up," she says.

Threats are not just from above.

Oftentimes, fire will burn entire root systems beneath the surface, causing large exposed sinkholes as well as the more dangerous hidden caverns beneath a crust of duff.

"I've stepped in some and sunk in down to my waist," says Brian Long, a Rogue River-Siskiyou recreational staff officer working on the Miller Complex fires in the Applegate.

Rydberg continues down the 7.4-mile loop trail to Heavenly Twin Lakes.

"As you go, you hope it didn't reach the lakes," she says.

It did, burning down to the banks of Little Twin, the smaller of the two lakes Rydberg visits at least once a year.

Rydberg says she is a regular wilderness hiker because she can take solace in returning to predictable places like the Cold Springs Trail, knowing they will be a constant in today's ever-changing world.

Until now.

"Now, it has changed," she says. "It's completely different, and it will always be different. It will never look like how it used to look."

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

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Cher Rydberg, walks through a recently burned forest in the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area on Tuesday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]
A tree hollowed out by fire and prone to breaking or falling is an example of the many potential dangers hikers face in burned areas. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]