A spectacular wildflower display near Bolan Mountain in the 2020 Slater Fire area.
The 2020 Slater Fire was a complex fire event with a wide variety of fire effects and vegetative responses. Depending on weather conditions and wind speeds, the fire behaved very differently throughout the Slater Fire area, but was also heavily influenced by a severe east wind event occurring on September 7, 2020. Pushed by 60 mile per hour winds and record low relative humidity, large areas burned at high severity within 24 to 36 hours of ignition, transforming lush, green forests into ridges and canyons of ghostly gray snags. However, as the wind died down and smoke inversions blanketed the fire, behavior was dramatically reduced and low severity, understory fire effects dominated the remainder of the fire period. The complexity and contrast of the Slater Fire is also mirrored in both the vegetative response and the public’s perception of the fire. Today, the same high severity burn areas that many declared “destroyed” by the Slater Fire are bursting with life and experiencing a spectacular fire-induced super bloom. Here you see the vigorous vegetative response and clearly fire adapted plant and animal communities contradicting the rhetoric, and demonstrating that these forests were not destroyed, but reborn, as they have evolved to do over millennia.
The Slater Fire was not a natural ignition and instead was lit by downed PacifiCorp powerlines toppled by high winds near the Slater Butte Lookout. Just east of Happy Camp, California and high above the Klamath River, the Slater Fire burned quickly from Slater Butte into the town of Happy Camp, as a wind-driven inferno. Experiencing the same historic east winds that pushed high severity fire across western Oregon in September 2020, the Slater Fire was a perfect storm. Burning under the most extreme weather conditions, the fire raged through Happy Camp and the surrounding area, tragically taking a life and burning hundreds of homes on lower Indian Creek.
Within 24 hours nearly 100,000 acres had burned and the fire had raced over the Siskiyou Crest into the headwaters of the Illinois River watershed, threatening the community of Taklima, Oregon. It also traveled over the ridge to the Smith River watershed, upstream of Gasquet, California. During this period, historically high winds and low humidity influenced the Slater Fire, which proceeded to torch nearly everything it touched. The high severity, wind-driven fire burned large swaths of Indian Creek above the Klamath River, as well as upper Althouse Creek, and portions of Sucker Creek at the headwaters of the Illinois River.
Where it raged through towns and communities, the Slater Fire was tragic and will long be remembered for its powerfully destructive force. Due to extreme weather conditions, the fire also burned uniquely and uniformly hot in those first 24 hours, leaving vast snag forests and early seral habitat where lush green forests once stood.
Yet today, just two years after the fire, the gray, snag filled ridges have developed into one of the most spectacular fire induced super blooms I have ever seen. Bursting with vibrancy, life and unbelievable color, the flowers are currently so thick that you can see bright yellow swaths of Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) and mountain arnica (Arnica latifolia) blooming from ridges away. The butterflies, bees, pollinating beetles and flies swarm the sea of blossoms in a frenzy, collecting pollen and nectar. Song birds dart about in the regenerating vegetation, eating insects and wildflower seeds. Deer and elk nibble on the herbaceous growth and the abundant, fire-coppiced trees and shrubs. Bears graze on the greenery. Raptors sore above the snag forest looking for prey species, whose populations have exploded since the fire, and woodpeckers drum against the standing snags in a repetitive chorus, noisily foraging for ants, grubs and other insects.
Although in many places, vast swaths of forest where burned at high severity during the Slater Fire, the area is far from destroyed; in fact, in some locations there are super blooms that are literally teeming with life! Today, the Slater Fire super bloom demonstrates the region’s resilience and incredible fire adaptation. These spectacular fire induced super blooms are among the most beautiful and abundant wildflower displays one can imagine. They are also fleeting, episodic moments in time that must be seen to be believed, and may not be seen again for many years.
What is certain is that this is not the first high severity fire to burn through this region, and this is not the first fire induced super bloom to brighten these slopes. These super blooms represent decades of seed load in the soil seed bank, waiting under a forest canopy or smothered under a thick layer of forest duff. Having burned off the canopy and much of the forest detritus, the wildflowers, long waiting for just such an opportunity, have burst into life.
Go out and enjoy the spectacular Slater Fire super bloom, it will leave you with a new appreciation for the ecological role of high severity fire and the post-fire rejuvenation of native, fire adapted plant species. Some label high severity fire “bad fire” and fail to understand both its beauty and biodiversity. Still others claim that the extent of high severity fire burning today is unprecedented and plant communities cannot evolve or adapt to contemporary fire regimes; however, I say try wading through waist high wildflowers in the Slater Fire and you might see things differently. With truly exceptional biodiversity, snag forests have their own beauty and ecological function in the environment.
In southern California, moist springs bring world-renowned super blooms, while up north in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, it’s wildfires that bring similar levels of unacknowledged and underappreciated wildflower abundance. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, these northern super blooms brightening stark, fire blackened landscapes with one of nature’s most spectacular stories of rejuvenation, transformation and resilience. Currently, the Slater Fire is blooming and it truly is not something that should be missed.
The photo essay below depicts current post-fire conditions in the 2020 Slater Fire in the Tanner Lakes area at the western margin of the Red Buttes Wilderness, and in the adjacent Bolan Mountain Botanical Area.
Slater Fire Super Bloom
Barestem buckwheat (Eriognum nudum) blooming near Weston Mountain.
Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) and rock outcrops near Weston Mountain.
Dense swaths of pink Pussy paws (Calyprtidium unbellatum) alternate with yellow Oregon sunshine and pale purple Shasta lupine on the Kings Saddle Trail near Bolan Peak.
The Bolan Mountain area contains the westernmost population of Nuttall’s linanthus (Leptosiphon nuttallii) in Oregon, which responded positively to the Slater Fire and is blooming profusely.
Bolan Lake/King Saddle Trail Super Bloom
Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) blooming on the Siskiyou Crest at the junction of Bolan Lake Trail and Kings Saddle Trail.
Siskiyou penstemon (Penstemon anguineus), Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), and Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum)
Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) blooming in the Slater Fire near Bolan Mountain.
Pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) and Oregon sunshine (Eripphyllum lanatum) growing in large swaths near the junction of the Bolan Lake and Kings Saddle Trails.
Diverse and spectacular floral displays in the Slater Fire footprint.
Rock gardens above Bolan Lake.
Oregon sunshine dominates fire effected openings on the Siskiyou Crest.
Fire induced super blooms on the Siskiyou Crest along the Kings Saddle Trail.
Mixed wildflowers in burned forest.
Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) and Shasta lupine (Lupinus albicaulis var. shastensis) growing together on the Bolan Lake Trail.
Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) near the junction of the Bolan Lake and Kings Saddle Trails on the Siskiyou Crest.
Shasta lupine (Lupinus albicaulis var. shastensis) blooms in abundance in the openings on the Siskiyou Crest and in the Slater Fire area.
Meadows at the intersection of the Bolan Lake and King Saddle Trails.
Washington lily was blooming particularly abundantly in the Slater Fire, especially in areas affected by high severity fire.
Fire rejuvinated wildflowers, including Mountain blue penstemon (Penstemon laetus) and capitate sandwort (Eremogone congesta)
A diverse floral display above Tanner Lake in the Slater Fire footprint.
Mixed wildflowers regenerating in forest burned at high severity.
Hot rock penstemon (Penstemon deustus) blooming near Tanner Mountain in the Slater Fire footprint.
Pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) and a parnassian butterfly near Tanner Mountain.
A mixture of Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), Siskiyou penstemon (Penstemon anguineus) with Changeable phacelia (Phacelia mutabilis).
Mountain blue penstemon on the slopes above Tanner Lake.
Shasta lupine fills openings and relatively dry meadows throughout the Slater Fire area in the Tanner and Bolan Mountain areas.
Mountain arnica (Arnica latifolia) being visited by a yellow faced bumble bee.
Mountain arnica (Arnica latifolia) and Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) and Siskiyou penstemon (Penstemon anguineus) near Tanner Lake.
The mosaic of fire severity in the Slater Fire footprint
Mixed severity fire effects in upper Sucker Creek and in the East Tanner Lake basin.
Low severity fire effects at East Tanner Lake.
High severity fire in the East Fork Indian Creek watershed. Sixty mile per hour winds pushed the Slater Fire up this steep, formerly forested canyon, which burned under the most severe weather conditions.
Bolan Lake burned during the massive wind driven run of September 7 & 8 2020, but retains a ring of mature forest around the lake itself and at the campground.
The Slater Fire burned at largely low severity in the headwaters of Thompson Creek in the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area. The green forest in the foreground of this photograph burned at low severity after the large wind driven run between September 7 & 8, 2020.
High severity fire and snag forest in the headwaters of Althouse Creek. This area burned during a wind driven, downhill run on the evening of September 7.
Portions of the Slater Fire burned at low severity, like this forest at the headwaters of Thompson Creek.
Other portions burned at high severity like this area regenerating into a braken fern opening near Tanner Mountain.