Last summer the McKinney Fire burned on the Klamath River in the rugged Scott Bar Mountains. Apparently lit by downed powerlines in the McKinney Creek watershed on July 29, 2022, the region had been trapped in a ridge of high pressure creating a pronounced heat dome with extremely high temperatures and low relative humidity. In nearby Montague, California high temperatures had not dropped below 96 degrees for two weeks, drying out forest fuels and creating the conditions under which fire could quickly spread through parched vegetation. These conditions were made worse by high winds which reportedly toppled the powerlines on McKinney Creek and contributed to the fire’s initial spread.
That evening with the fire at only 300 acres, dry thunderstorms developed, creating gusty outflow winds which fanned the fire to the north and east. These outflow winds produced extreme fire behavior and generated a massive pyrocumulus smoke plume billowing 50,000’ into the sky. When this massive plume finally collapsed, fire spread in all directions and rushed down the slopes into the community of Klamath River, California. Tragically, in the firestorm that ensued, it is estimated the at least 185 structures were burned and four lives were lost. During the first 36 hours, 51,468 acres had burned with relatively severe fire effects, and high levels of tree mortality across Klamath National Forest lands, private timber lands, and rural residential lands along the Klamath River and in surrounding watersheds.
Following this period of explosive fire behavior and severe fire weather, a heavy smoke inversion spread across the fire area, dramatically moderating fire activity, trapping humidity, and reducing ambient air temperatures. Rain then fell across the area on August 1, 2022 bringing this once seemingly unstoppable inferno to a screeching halt just four days after it started.
The next afternoon with crews attempting to “go direct” across the fire area and limit fire spread, thunderstorms again moved into the area. This time they brought heavy, monsoonal rainfall, accounting for up to 3” of heavy rain in just a few hours in some parts of the fire area. This incredible downpour, coupled with the recent high severity fire effects, significant road failures, extremely steep slopes, erosive soils, historic hillside terracing associated with logging, and post-fire logging following the 1955 Haystack Fire, as well as a long history of old forest liquidation, all contributed to the debris flows that tore down Vesa Creek, Humbug Creek, and Little Humbug Creek into the Klamath River. The mud and debris that filled the Klamath River starved the water of oxygen and killed fish by the thousands, including suckers, steelhead, salmon, lamprey and many other species in the aquatic food chain.
However, this spring, in the aftermath of all this natural and unnatural disturbance, we are witnessing the resilience of nature and the region’s unique adaptation to high severity wildfire and its effects. Currently, the McKinney Fire area is experiencing a fire-induced superbloom, with profusions of wildlflowers carpeting the burned off slopes. In this first year after the fire, geophytes or bulb producing plants are dominating the slopes with vast swaths of purple blue dicks (Dipterostemon capitatus) and forked toothed ookow (Dichelostemma congestum) dominating the landscape. The blue dicks bloomed first in the lower elevations and the most exposed slopes, followed roughly two weeks later by swaths of lavender forked toothed ookow.
Thousands of yellow triteleia (Triteleia crocea), which are also geophytes, are blooming in more protected sites and on benches along the river. Higher elevations are currently covered in vibrant swaths of purple blue dicks, frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa), blue field gilia (Gilia capitata), western buttercups (Ranunuculus occidentalis), other annuals, and quickly recovering perennials, all blooming profusely.
This portion of the Scott Bar Mountains supports a complex mosaic of dry mixed conifer forest growing in only the most favorable sites, with abundant chaparral, arid grasslands, stump sprouting oak woodlands, and disjunct populations of Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) sprawling across the landscape. In a significant rainshadow of both the Siskiyou Crest and the Marble Mountains, the area contains rather arid slopes and plant associations indicative of the sunbaked California foothills and the juniper-sagebrush steppe of the western Great Basin. It has also been profoundly influenced by frequent lightning ignitions and high severity, wind-drive fire events like the McKinney Fire and the very similar 1955 Haystack Fire footprint. According to Forest Service documents, this area also has some of the highest lightning occurrences on the Klamath National Forest. Thunderstorms often develop over the Scott Valley to the south, and track north into this portion of the Klamath River creating a pronounced “lightning alley.”
Although a dramatic and severe fire event, the McKinney Fire is not the area’s first hot fire, or the first fire-induced superbloom these mountains have seen. Presumably, similar wildflower displays followed the Haystack Fire and other previous fires pushed by river canyon winds. The massive fire triggered floral displays that follow wildfire are a part of natural succession in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, and have been occurring for millennia. They are also among the most beautiful floral displays one can imagine and a benefit to both native plant communities, the pollinators that depend on them, and the wildlife that utilize the area.
On a recent afternoon I climbed the slopes of the McKinney Fire area on Little Humbug and Vesa Creeks. In view from the burned off ridges the Siskiyou Crest, the Marble Mountains and the Scott Bar Mountains rise from the deep canyon of the Klamath River, reaching up long ridgelines to snow capped peaks that swallow the horizon. The massive McKinney Fire stretches into the distance, black and scorched, but from this perspective, small, when confronted with the vastness of these seemingly endless ridges and peaks. Cumulatively, fire has left its mark across this canyon in recent years, burning most of the canyon between here and Orleans, almost 90 miles downstream. Forests have burned and underburned throughout the Klamath Mountains, often in dramatic fashion, and seral stages have been recycled and recycled again, into a complex, patchy mosaic of forest, chaparral, hardwood groves, grasslands, snag forests and rock outcrops.
Just like it has in the past, this landscape persists and is reborn in processes that many define as disasters. Fire on this landscape is neither good nor bad, it just is, it survives and persists despite us and sometimes in spite of us. Currently the influence of wildfire is growing despite our efforts to suppress it and because we are changing the climate that creates its very character. Fire expands when conditions are right, exploits its potential windows of influence and often shapes the character of a landscape for many years to come.
Currently, the heavy rain and snow throughout southern California have triggered superblooms that are revered for their beauty and renowned for their spectacular abundance. Yet here in northern California on the obscure and little visited slopes above the Klamath River, a superbloom is taking place, with no tourist, no busy roads, no parking lots filled with visitors, and no incessant clicking of smartphones taking selfies for social media. To me, the fact that very few other people will enjoy this superbloom makes it all the finer.
From my perch on the flank of Craggy Mountain, the wind blows through the wildflowers and the blossoms sway in the breeze. All you can hear is the wind and buzz of busy native bees and other pollinators. The fragrance of wildflowers, fresh growth and soot fills the air, as greenery begins growing from the ash covered soils. Like a phoenix, nature has reset itself, despite the tragedy of the fire in the nearby communities and the severity of the fire for the forests and trees, these mountains carry on, altered, but unfazed, evolving and changing as natural processes paint its canvass with incredible brilliance and complexity. Like the aftermath of the 1955 Haystack Fire that burned so intensely across this landscape, the woody vegetation will regrow again, but for now wildflowers and pollinators dominate this landscape.