On March 3, 2021, I made my first boots-on-the-ground visit to the Archie Creek Burn area, east of Glide, Oregon. My goal for this and future visits is to observe, document, and share what physical and ecological processes I observe taking place, and in particular what plant and animal species are active in the burn and what they are doing. The majority of the burn area is officially closed to public entry, so I had to obtain permission to enter. Burned areas can be hazardous even for seasoned field workers such as myself and entering a burned area should be approached with caution and awareness, as well as with great intrigue and curiosity.
I spent three hours (11:30 – 14:30) in the vicinity of Bogus Creek, near Bogus Creek Campground, Umpqua National Forest. This was an area of high intensity fire, with 100% kill of overstory conifers, and 100% above-ground kill of everything else. I say “above-ground” because many understory hardwoods and shrubs were not completely killed, as you will see below. I chose this site for my first visit because I wanted to investigate a heavily impacted area and one that included a stream. An area with lighter impact and a mosaic of live and dead trees would be expected to have various plants and animals active already, but what about a site where even the duff on the ground was consumed? That’s what I wanted to see.
As I gazed at the hillside, it was incredible how complete the burn was. I saw no scattered live conifers, no patches of unburned brush, nothing. Everything was black. Well, …almost everything.
As my focus adjusted to finer details, I began to notice small signs of life, and the more I looked the more I found. The first, most obvious signs of life were basal-sprouting broadleaf trees and shrubs. The most common sprouters were Bigleaf Maple and a couple Ceanothus species. On these trees and shrubs, the above-ground trunks and limbs were killed, but for some individuals the roots and collar remained alive and these were sending up new shoots.
As I walked through the burn, signs of life remained sparse, but here and there, small beginnings were reaching out, powered by the underground roots, and seeking to gain new energy from the generous sun. Those displayed below are a mix of perennial forbs, woody shrubs, and fungi, each with their own configuration of roots, corms, rhizomes, or mycelium that allow them to survive destruction of the above-ground portion of the plant. They deserve a round of applause, don’t you think?
In addition to the perennial forbs and shrubs, a few annual forbs were just beginning to appear. This early in the season, and possibly due to the hot burn killing seeds, not many annuals were found, but more will likely show up as the weather warms and seeds continue to find their way into the burn and germinate in their preferred season.
A variety of underground critters and fungi apparently found enough refuge to survive the fire. Centipedes were quite common under rocks and logs, as were earthworms. Not far from Bogus Creek was evidence of very recent Coast Mole burrowing activity. A variety of snail shells were found, some deceased before the fire, others during, with a few survivors under rocks and bark.
Above ground, even in early March, a few insects and spiders were out and about in the burn on this sunny day. I noted two different types of web (which usually indicates different types of spiders), flies, a few California Tortoiseshell butterfies (likely overwintered nearby), and to my great surprise, a single Variegated Meadowhawk dragonfly! My assumption is that most of these came into the burn from elsewhere, with the exception of the stonefly, which probably came from Bogus Creek.
Trees, logs, and debris were burned even down to and within the rocky channel of Bogus Creek. There were generally more sprouting forbs along the stream than on the hillsides, perhaps because the cooler substrate may have reduced the subsurface impact on plant roots and seeds. Although I did not do a thorough sampling of the stream, I nevertheless found at least three different types of insect in the stream: stoneflies, caddisflies, and mayflies, all in larval form. I did a small amount of searching for stream amphibians with no luck. I expect there are some present, but they can be difficult to find at higher water levels.
I saw no mammals or sign other than the tunneling evidence of the Coast Mole. One somewhat broken-apart rotten log I assessed as being caused by a human versus a Black Bear. Nevertheless, I would guess that a variety of mammals, from deer, bear, cougar, fox, bobcat, squirrels, bats, etc. are probably investigating, mostly at night. Trailcams placed in the area would reveal their presence. In regards to other vertebrates, I did hear several Northern Pacific Treefrogs (Pseudacris regilla), but they stopped calling before I could find their location. Birds were sparse. I recorded only 1 Steller’s Jay, 2 Pacific Wren, and 2 Common Raven during my three hours. However, I did see some recent foraging sign of Pileated Woodpecker. I expect a few more species to utilize the area this spring and summer, but not many; perhaps House Wren, Western Bluebird, and a few others. In 5-10 years when the area is rank with shrubs, the insect and bird diversity will explode!
The fate of snags from the previous forest was mixed. In some cases, what were formerly large snags were now empty holes in the ground where the entire tree and large roots were consumed by the fire. In other cases, the snags were scorched, but not consumed. Several of the surviving snags showed post-fire foraging by Pileated Woodpeckers.
I found a number of seemingly healthy Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) cones and on my way back to my pickup realized something I hadn’t consciously considered before then: there was a layer of conifer needles almost everywhere. As I pondered this, I realized that in this area, many of the needles were not consumed during the fire. Some undoubtedly were, but many trees also were merely killed by the heat, without complete consumption of the canopy. Therefore, over the winter, wind, rain, and snow brought the dead needles to the forest floor, in some areas placing a nice layer of organic matter over the torched soil. Wow, it just felt like a blanket of protection.
In retrospect, I am deeply impressed with the contrast between the appearance of devastation at the landscape level, and the complexity of life and regeneration at the microsite level. The number and variety of species present in this area, despite the impact from the fire, is amazing. But, should we really be amazed? Perhaps, instead, we should be confident in the resilience of these ecosystems that have experienced fire for many thousands of years. Perhaps our short time on this earth and our fast lifestyles have compromised our ability to see the bigger picture, the longer picture. If we take these hints found throughout the burn, and look keenly into the future, we may be able to see the beautiful forest developing here again.
This site visit and summary was made possibly by a generous gift from Anna Slemmer, a long-time environmentalist and supporter of Umpqua Valley Audubon.
Matt Hunter, Consulting Wildlife Ecologist