Finding the Green Among the Ashes

After a historic wildfire season, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is focusing on restoration and assessing the fire’s impact on fish, wildlife, and habitat.

A satellite map provided by the National Interagency Fire Center shows the aftermath of Oregon’s 2020 wildfire season. The pale red outlines denote burn areas from the 2020 season. The red/orange/yellow dots indicate recent fires detected as of November 25, 2020. The red flame symbol denotes an active portion of the Riverside Fire, which has burned more than 138,000 acres and was listed as 80% contained as of November 28, 2020.

 By Sean Knox

November 29, 2020

As temperatures drop and the first days of winter draw near, the scars of Oregon’s most recent wildfire season are still fresh. The charred landscapes bear witness to the undeniable power of the fires, and memories of orange skies and smoke-choked air will be slow to fade.

Caused by a combination of abundant fuels, dry conditions, high winds, and effective ignition sources — both lightning-caused and human-caused — the fires serve as a stark reminder that decades of U.S. fire suppression and the growing impacts of climate change are already beginning to have visible and increasingly dramatic consequences.

The 2020 Oregon wildfires burned through more than 1.2 million acres, an area greater than all of Clackamas County, with more than 2,000 individual fires recorded across the state. Large swaths of public lands affected by the fires are still closed to the public, including sections of the Mt. Hood, Umpqua, and Willamette National Forests.

In the wake of such a hard-hitting season, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is beginning to assess the impact of the fires on the state’s natural resources. But taking stock of the damage and beginning to plan for the future will require a comprehensive understanding of what has changed, which is no easy feat given the nature of this year’s fires.

“Probably the biggest challenge is just the scope and scale,” said Bernadette Graham-Hudson, the ODFW’s region manager for the western part of the state. “The fires were so widespread…there really is going to have to be a prioritization of where to focus our efforts.”

Working Together

To complicate matters even further, the ODFW is also facing the aftermath of a fire season that struck close to home for many Oregon residents, with many of the state’s wildfires burning across the highly-populated western part of the state. While similarly sweeping wildfire seasons aren’t entirely unheard of, the fires have often been concentrated in forests and grasslands located in southwest Oregon and the more remote regions of central and eastern Oregon.

Just like wildlife, wildfires often freely ignore  management jurisdictions and property boundaries, meaning that assessing the impact to the state’s wildlife species and habitats will require communication and cooperation.

“In most cases, we’re not the land managers. So we do a lot of coordination with our federal and state partners,” said Graham-Hudson.

The ongoing wildfire response involves partnerships between federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, state agencies like the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Water Enhancement Board, tribal governments, and private landowners.

Following a fire, rapid impact assessments and emergency stabilization recommendations are a key step in understanding the effects of a fire and taking action to mitigate associated risks. Wildfires can wipe out much of the vegetation in an area, including the root networks that previously served to stabilize soils; that loss increases the likelihood of increased soil erosion, runoff, and even potential landslides once winter rains begin to fall.

To assess the damage and potential hazards, collaborative inter-agency groups, including teams from the federal Burned Area Evaluation Response (BAER) program  and Oregon’s Erosion Threat Assessment and Reduction Teams (ETARTs), are sent into burn zones. These teams, comprised of hydrologists, soil scientists, biologists, and other highly-trained specialists survey the damage, recommend emergency actions to minimize erosion-related threats, and generate reports and maps that can then be shared between agencies. The results then allow individual agencies to prioritize and focus response efforts.

“A lot of that early post-fire response timeline was just trying to get information,” said Jennifer Ringo, the ODFW wildlife restoration coordinator who’s currently coordinating the ODFW’s wildlife response with other agencies. “Having those map products really helped our field staff to have a better idea of what those impacts might be to fish and wildlife resources and to habitat.”

Determining Priorities, Recognizing Challenges

Now that the BAER team surveys  have concluded, and with the ETARTs program wrapping up its assessment project, the ODFW’s focus will shift towards learning more about specific impacts to Oregon’s fish, wildlife, and their associated habitats, and towards implementing restoration projects wherever possible.

While many of Oregon’s species and habitats have adapted and even evolved alongside wildfires, the near-term impacts of the fires can be detrimental for some species, including those that rely on specific habitat types.

“We know that a great deal of our late successional [forest] habitat has been converted to early successional…it’s basically undergone this huge change,” said Ringo.

As the fires burn away the specific tree and other plant species that dominate late-stage forested habitat, they effectively wipe the board and reset the successional clock, dramatically altering the habitat and the available resources in an area. Although some animals are generalists, able to survive in a wide range of habitats, other species like marbled murrelets and northern spotted owls require late successional or old growth forests for some or all of their life cycle requirements.

While birds and larger animals like deer and coyotes can often flee from approaching wildfires, not all species have the same mobility, and limited and isolated populations can be particularly vulnerable. For species like the Oregon slender salamander, a tiny speckled amphibian found only in forested areas along the western slopes of Oregon’s Cascade Range, the wildfires could have a significant impact. The salamander is an Oregon conservation strategy species and a federally listed species of concern, largely owing to its limited distribution and sensitivity to disturbance.

The immediate aftermath of the wildfires also represent a near-term threat to some aquatic species, as increased erosion and runoff can negatively impact water quality and available habitat.

“There’s certainly some short term issues around sedimentation and smothering of redds (bowl-shaped spawning beds created by fish during the breeding season) for some of the salmonids in particular, those are really most of concern, where we have these populations that were kind of backed into a corner…listed populations that may have limited spawning distribution,” said Shaun Clements, an ODFW senior policy analyst who’s currently coordinating the ODFW’s fisheries response.

Along with direct impacts to fish and wildlife, the ODFW will be assessing and responding to the threat of invasive plant species. When wildfires sweep through an area, particularly in places where conditions lead to high severity burns, the fires remove much of the vegetation from an area. For invasive plant species, many of which excel at rapidly colonizing open areas, this vegetation removal presents an opening. Once established, plants like invasive thistles, scotch broom, and Himalayan blackberry can become hard to remove, digging in and blocking the return of native plant species. To stay on top of the threat, the ODFW will employ what Ringo refers to as Early Detection and Rapid Response protocol. The goal will be to spot invasive species as they begin to encroach on burned areas, removing them and doing everything possible to hold the door open for the return of native species.

“In some cases there might even be some replanting and reseeding to kind of help that along and keep those invasive species from taking over,” said Ringo.

Moving Forward

While the ODFW faces plenty of challenges in responding to such a major fire event, the staff are quick to emphasize that the devastating near-term impacts of these fires will eventually lead to long-term benefits for many wildlife species and their associated habitats. Wildfires are a natural part of the Oregon landscape, and in some places these fires will reset successional cycles that were previously kept stagnant by the decades of fire suppression once favored by land managers in the United States. Fire can bring needed change to many areas; for every fish or wildlife species that faces hardships in the wake of the fires, there will be others that ultimately prosper.

“The fires have been certainly devastating from a human point of view…both from losing houses and communities, but also the recreation side of things, just a huge swath of land that people enjoy just kind of gone for a period of time now,” said Clements. “But from a fish and wildlife point of view, there’s plenty of opportunity for benefit out here if we take the steps to make sure that some of these processes can kind of carry on naturally.”

The agency wants to do everything it can to promote natural regeneration in these fire-affected habitats, although Clements notes that the ODFW will likely consider a different approach for high burn severity areas where there are no natural seed sources left. Another restoration goal will be to see where it might be beneficial to leave downed wood on the landscape, particularly near streams: by allowing some large sections of downed wood to gradually enter streams, overall stream health and productivity will begin to improve.

The timeline for the regeneration of these fire-affected areas will be highly variable, depending on the affected habitat types, the relative remoteness of the burn location, and the severity and intensity of the fire. According to Clements, more remote areas with high burn severity and limited seed sources could take 70 years or more before the effects of regeneration can really start to take hold, while other locations are already seeing the return of ferns and other vegetation and could see the return of tree saplings as early as next year.

In the meantime, the ODFW will continue to develop and implement restoration plans, study the impacts of this year’s wildfires, and see what lessons can be applied in the years to come.

“I think there’s really a lot of opportunity here to learn more…as our climate changes going forward, it’s possible that we might see more of this,” said Graham-Hudson. “So learning from this event will certainly be important…and hopefully inform how we manage both the fish and wildlife populations and the habitat in the future.”

A graphic created by the OSU Extension Office depicts Oregon forest ownership divisions and causes of forest fires. Respon
ding to widespread wildfires in Oregon often requires collaboration between federal, state, tribal, and private land managers. Credit: Oregon State University Extension Office.

Although Chinook salmon populations can sometimes face negative short-term impacts immediately following wildfires, they are one of many species that ultimately benefit from the effects of fire on the landscape. Credit: Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The northern spotted owl prefers mature and old growth forest habitat. In Oregon, the owl’s range overlaps with many of the major wildfires that burned across the state during the 2020 wildfire season. Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.