The Riverside Fire shortly after it exploded into a major conflagration in September 2021 (USFS)
In the aftermath of the 49,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, we learned the following essential facts:
- The fire was human-caused by a careless teenager throwing fireworks over a cliff along the Eagle Creek Trail on a crowded Labor Day weekend with extreme fire conditions. 176 hikers had to be rescued after the fire exploded. The teenager was later sentenced to extensive community service working with forest crews
- No human life and minimal loss of structures occurred, despite the close proximity to the town of Cascade Locks and hundreds of homes built in the forest fringes adjacent to the national forest
- Though human-caused, the scale and timing of the fire was completely in line with historic large fires in the Gorge, occurring roughly every century. The last major fire on the Oregon side was also centered on the Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek areas, in the late 1800s. The massive Yacolt Burn on the Washington side occurred in 1902
- The forest recovery following the fire was immediate, reassuring, and continues without human intervention (in the form of replanting)
- The extreme weather conditions and risk for fire was forecast in advance by the National Weather Service, yet this information was not enough to persuade the U.S. Forest Service or the Oregon Parks and Recreation Division to reconsider public access to the Gorge that fateful Labor Day weekend.
Powerful easterly winds drove the massive Riverside Fire west, toward the Willamette Valley (USFS)
Flash forward to 2020, and we have a repeat of the Eagle Creek Fire in the form of the 138,000-acre Riverside Fire, which burned much of the Clackamas and Molalla River watersheds after it started the day after Labor Day:
- Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside Fire was human-caused, as was the 36 Pit Fire that had previously burned 5,500 acres in the lower Clackamas River canyon in September 2014
- Like the Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge, the extreme weather conditions that made the Riverside Fire so explosive were well-predicted and nearly certain to unfold as forecast. We were warned that high winds would blow hot desert air over the Cascade passes in Oregon and Washington, turning mountain canyons into wind tunnels of hot, exceptionally dry air all the way to the Willamette Valley
- Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside burned an area that was probably overdue for fire, as measured by the approximately 100-200 year intervals between large fires on the west slopes of the Cascades. Unlike the Gorge, the Clackamas and Molalla basins had been heavily logged by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the private timber corporations for 70 years, so much of the burn consisted of crowded clear-cut plantations that turned out to be especially vulnerable to fire
- Unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, thousands of acres of private, previously logged-over plantations burned, and the timber corporations have been aggressively “salvaging” burned trees in the months since the fire occurred – a practice that has been shown to be especially damaging to forest recovery
- Like the Eagle Creek Fire, towns like Estacada and Molalla were spared, though the fire burned frighteningly close to Estacada. But unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside fire destroyed 139 homes and outbuildings and injured four people in its path along the west slope of the Cascades.
- Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside turned skies in the Portland metropolitan area orange for days, raining ash on some of the suburbs, and awakening the urban population to the health and economic impacts that large fires have always had on rural communities.
Memaloose Road after the Riverside Fire (USFS)
When it was over, the Riverside fire had burned nearly three times the area of Eagle Creek Fire. The scale of the fire is still sinking in, since the burn area is largely closed to the public, indefinitely. But the few photos the Forest Service has provided show scenes similar to the Eagle Creek Fire, from severely burned areas where the forest canopy was completely killed to areas of “mosaic” burns, a beneficial fire pattern where intensely burned areas are intermixed with less burned forest, where the tree canopy is likely to survive the fire. Early analysis of the first suggests that it was generally more severe than the Eagle Creek fire, with large areas of the Clackamas River watershed severely burned.
The lower Clackamas River canyon has now burned three times in the past 20 years, first with the Bowl Fire in 2002 that burned 339 acres, then the 36 Pit Fire in 2014, and now the massive Riverside Fire. In this recent article [https://wyeastblog.org/tag/clackamas-river/] I described a forest recovery that was already underway when the Riverside Fire swept the through the lower Clackamas River canyon last fall, and we don’t yet know how much of this recovering forest was burned.
Adjusting to our new reality…
While the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires have much in common, and the fires aren’t necessarily outliers compared to historic fires in the area, there are some important takeaways from both fires that are concerning. They underscore the reality that climate change and increased human presence in our forests are accelerating the pace of major forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.
Fire-scorched Fish Creek Campground (USFS)
First, the recent sequence of fires in the lower Clackamas River Canyon is troubling, as we are now seeing fires burn through the same forests in rapid succession. This means that surviving forest patches from the 2002 Bowl Fire also had to contend with the 2014 16 PIt Fire, and later, the 2020 Riverside Fire to continue the benefits of a “mosaic” burn to the lower canyon. While we don’t yet know, we almost certainly lost some (or perhaps all) of these surviving forests from earlier fires. These are the beneficial mosaic survivors that ensure a rapid forest recovery. Without them, we can expect a much slower forest recovery, and more erosion and earth movement will result.
Second, the Forest Service has shown an inability (or unwillingness) to simply close down recreation areas when extreme fire conditions are forecast. Their position is understandable: closing down the Gorge after the Eagle Creek Fire caused much controversy, so we can only imagine the outrage had that been done before that Labor Day in 2017, though we would almost certainly have prevented the catastrophic fire that resulted. Conversely, prevention is rarely credited in our society, so the likely public relations firestorm of closing the forest on Labor Day weekend to avoid a real firestorm in the forest would have been a truly thankless decision for the Forest Service.
Fish Creek drainage after the fire showing a mosaic burn pattern (USFS)
The same holds for the 2020 Riverside Fire. Closing down the Clackamas River recreation corridor to campers, boaters and hikers on Labor Day weekend would surely have set off a major controversy for the Forest Service, and only in hindsight can we know that it would have prevented a catastrophic fire needlessly caused by humans.
I visited the corridor on a busy weekend just before Labor Day, and I was saddened to see “dispersed” campsites all along the Clackamas with campfires burning, despite a ban on fires at the time. These unofficial campsites have a long history and tradition in our national forests, and they have been mushrooming in new places all around WyEast Country in recent years as campers seek to avoid the fees (and rules) of developed campgrounds. As a result, they are increasingly becoming havens for lawless activity, including tree cutting, dumping and illegal fires.
Mobbed “dispersed” campsite in the Clackamas corridor with multiple campfires burning a few days before the Riverside Fire
The Forest Service simply doesn’t have the capacity to meaningfully enforce fire restrictions in the growing number of dispersed sites, and it’s time we view them as the hazard to our forests that they have become. The agency has begun to close some of these sites, but if we learn that the Riverside Fire was ignited by an illegal campfire in a dispersed campsite, then we’ll have a strong case for completely banning them – everywhere.
Would that cause an outcry? Absolutely. But many tough decisions lie ahead if we hope to save our forests from our own bad behavior during a time of unprecedented environmental change.
Forest Service fire patrol attempting to monitor dispersed campers
Parking overload at a dispersed campsite in the Clackamas Corridor a few days before the Riverside Fire
Private utilities saw the fire situation differently last September. Portland General Electric (PGE) opted to shut down its powerlines in the heavily populated Mount Hood corridor and its three powerhouses and adjoining powerlines in the Clackamas River canyon in anticipation of the wind event, for fear of their power system igniting the forest.
Looking back, there’s no way to know if that would have happened, but the recent fires caused by powerlines in California (and resulting lawsuits against the utilities) surely weighed on PGE’s decision. In that light, the frustration of several thousand customers seemed a fair tradeoff to PGE, especially when you consider that the nearby Beachie Creek Fire and other fires that burned throughout Oregon during that weather event were caused by downed powerlines from the extreme wind.
Crowded clear-cut plantations like this fared poorly in the Riverside Fire (USFS)
Another important take-way is that our forests are becoming increasingly stressed by climate change. Our summers are hotter and longer, our snowpack is retreating to higher elevations and is less abundant. This makes our forests much more vulnerable to fire, especially at the end of our summer drought season in late August and into September. Little is known about how global climate change will ultimately affect our forests, but it’s becoming clear that the fire risk is only increasing and scale and frequency, and our forests on the west slope of the Cascades didn’t evolve for that.
As we move forward into this unsettling future, the real question isn’t whether we can make sound judgments about fire danger based on science and observation. We know we can, and the science is getting better and more reliable all the time. Instead, the question is whether we are willing to follow science to make the tough calls?
For this, we need only look to the global COVID-19 pandemic that we are riding out right now. The science behind basic, simple steps to prevent the transmission of the virus is solid and tested. In many societies, science alone has been persuasive enough to encourage mass compliance with prevention efforts. Not so in our country, of course, where putting on a simple face mask devolved into a debate about individual liberties, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from the coronavirus.
This appears to be “safety” logging by ODOT, not post-fire salvage logging — an increasingly discredited practice (USFS)
However, elected leaders in our corner of the country have been willing to follow the science (and face the angry wrath of a vocal few), and the public has overwhelmingly followed orders to keep our distance, shut down places where people gather and hunker down in our homes during this crisis. As loud as the dissenters are, the vast majority of Oregonians (and Washingtonians) have accepted that there are no good options in this crisis, only “least worst” options. Have we now reached a point with human-caused forest fires in our region that the public is similarly ready (or at least resigned) to accept restrictions based on our collective memory of recent, catastrophic fires?
This brings me back to the notorious month of September in WyEast, the time of year when some of our worst human-caused fires have occurred. It’s pretty clear now that the Forest Service isn’t able (or willing) to pre-emptively shut down forest access during the kind of extreme weather conditions to prevent human-caused fires that allowed the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires to explode. We saw yet another reminder of that fact a few weeks ago, when the Forest Service abruptly and unceremoniously re-opened the Eagle Creek Trail and other areas closed by the Eagle Creek Fire in the middle of the holiday vacation, and social media quickly responded, sending a crush of hikers to the trail.
Whale Creek near Indian Henry Campground after the fire (USFS)
Whale Creek before the fire
With this move, the Forest Service squandered a “reset” on access and crowd management the agency had long promised about since the closure began. Worse, the reopening of the Eagle Creek and other Gorge trails was completely at odds with warnings of COVID-19 spreading rampantly over the holidays. The risk of spreading the virus was exponentially higher in December than it had been in March 2020, when the Forest Service DID shut down trails in the Gorge. After a month of hikers crowding the reopened trail — where it is impossible to observe basic COVID precautions — Mother Nature unleashed a “Pineapple Express” deluge of rain in late January that washed out several sections of trail, closing it once again, though only “temporarily”, according to the Forest Service.
Somebody call the Governor..?
Given what we’ve learned about the inability of the Forest Service bureaucracy to act on solid science from these recent events, and especially given that climate change and our own behavior is only ramping up the fire risk, what if our state and local elected leaders were to step in? Could they make these decisions for the Forest Service in the name of public health and safety? Should they?
Mosaic burn along a section of the Clackamas showing some big trees that survived the fire while the clear-cut plantation in the distance was decimated (USFS)
The answer to the first question is yes, they probably could – especially the Governor. Last spring, the Forest Service closed most of the national forests in the Pacific Northwest in response to the broader COVID-19 shutdowns, and in their official words, did so “in consultation with state and local governments and tribes”. This probably means the national forest shutdown in Oregon and Washington occurred because the two governors had ordered a broader shutdown, as opposed to a president who was denying the pandemic at the time. So, while the governors may not have direct authority over federal lands, they appear to have functional authority (and if there are legal experts out there reading this who can answer this question more definitively, I welcome your thoughts!)
But should our elected leaders step up and make this call? The answer to this question is easy. Yes, of course they should. The pandemic has redefined the boundaries for elected leadership, at least for now. And besides, for most of us, it would be an inconvenience to stay home on Labor Day weekend out of an abundance of caution. For those who lost their homes (or the lives of loved ones) in the Oregon fires last September, it’s an especially easy call. If the pandemic has taught Americans anything, we’ve learned that much of what we do in our daily lives can be adjusted to meet needs greater than our own. As Americans, we reserve the right to complain, of course!
Aerial view of the Oak Grove area of the Clackamas basin showing a mosaic burn pattern and the untouched Roaring River Wilderness and Mount Hood, beyond (USFS)
Finally, how urgent is the need to assert some authority over the Forest Service in making the call for public closures during extreme fire conditions? It’s tempting to think the Gorge is immune from big fires for another century, now that much of the Oregon side was burned in the 2017 fire. But three fires in less than 20 years in the lower Clackamas River corridor tells us otherwise. We’re in a new fire reality, now, and the renewal of our forest depends on our ability to prevent further escalation of the fire cycle due to our own behavior.
Next time… Mount Hood?
And then there’s Mount Hood. The north and east sides burned in a series of three fires from 2005 to 2011, but much of the forest on these flanks of the mountain remains unburned, and is ripe for human caused fire by the throngs of hikers and backpackers who visit the mountain in the summer months.
1933 view of Mount Hood and burned-over Zigzag Mountain from burned-over Devils Peak. Everything in this view except for Mount Hood is now reforested. While large fires are not new to the western Cascades, they are becoming more frequent
More ominously, the south and west sides of the mountain haven’t seen major fires in more than a century. The extensive Kinzel and Sherar fires completely burned off several square miles of the forest, from near Timothy Lake all the way north to Lolo Pass, and from the community of Zigzag east to Bennett Pass. Few people lived near the mountain when these fires burned.
Today’s Mount Hood corridor travels through the middle of this largely recovered burn, and the highway is now lined with thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses and resorts. While PGE’s decision to shut down their powerlines in the Mount Hood corridor last September may well have prevented a fire being ignited from electrical lines, but it’s sheer luck that a human-caused fire didn’t occur.
The escalation of west-side fires calls to question the wisdom of continuing to build homes on the forest fringes, too. While most of these are on private land, they drive public policy, with developers and the real estate industry pushing the idea that forest fires can somehow be prevented in perpetuity. Elected officials have been wary to disagree, despite the science being on their side.
Early 1900s view of Government Camp when the south slopes of Mount Hood were still recovering from the last major fire to sweep through the area
In this emerging era of extreme weather and forests stressed by climate change, catastrophic, human-caused fires are quickly becoming an annual concern, even along the temperate west slope of the Cascades. When extreme fire conditions emerge again next summer, and with the Gorge and Riverside fires in our recent memory, are we finally ready and willing to say “no” to ourselves?
Before the COVID pandemic descended upon us last year, I would have been tempted to say “no” to that question, simply because American culture has struggled in recent years with the idea of the collective interest outweighing the individual. But the pandemic has renewed my optimism that we’re turning a page toward an era more like the 1930s and 40s, when a collective consensus emerged toward facing the dual challenges of economic despair and world war.
Despite our divisive domestic politics of the past few years, a working majority in this country has nevertheless emerged on the side of finally addressing climate change. That’s encouraging! After all, climate change is singularly a global threat that demands our collective effort. With restoring forests as one of the most important tools in combatting climate change, this could be the key to rethinking how we can prevent human-caused fires.
…and to end this article on an even more optimistic note, watch this blog for big news on the future of WyEast Country in the coming days! That’s a teaser, by the way…
As always, thanks for stopping by!
Tom Kloster • February 2021