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Siskiyou Mountain Range

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Wildfire in the Siskiyou Mountains: The Miller Complex, the Siskiyou Crest and the Upper Applegate

The Cook Fire smoldering in the old-growth forests of the Kangaroo Roadless Area on August 16, two days after ignition.

Wildfires have been burning all across our region. In the Klamath Mountains, south of the Klamath River, fires are burning in the Marble Mountains, up the Salmon River, along the Klamath River, in the Siskiyou Wilderness and in the mountains above Happy Camp and Seiad Valley, California. The Chetco Bar Fire has been burning all summer in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and along the Chetco River. In the southern Cascade Mountains from the North Umpqua, the Rogue Umpqua Divide, and on to Crater Lake fires are burning.

On August 14, 2017 a large thunderstorm drifted into the canyons of the Upper Applegate River. Hung up on the steep ridges, the storm poured rain while thunder and lightening crashed throughout the maze of canyons and peaks surrounding the Siskiyou Crest. 

Twenty-four small fires were lit that evening as lightening touched down into receptive fuel beds. Despite the heavy rain, many of these fire smoldered and crept into forest duff and understory vegetation. Some of the fires extinguished themselves, others were suppressed by firefighting crews. In all, five small fires remained in the wildlands of the Upper Applegate. These included the Abney Fire, Burnt Peak Fire, Seattle Fire, Creedence Fire, and Cook Fire. 

The Seattle Fire burning above the Middle Fork of the Applegate River

The Abney and Cook Fires were initially ignited in the Middle Fork of the Applegate River in the Kangaroo Roadless Area. The Creedence Fire was located near Grayback Mountain, also in the Kangaroo Roadless Area, above Carberry Creek. The Burnt Peak Fire began near Burnt Peak in the Collings-Kinney Roadless Area, while the Seattle Fire burned in unroaded old-growth forest near Stricklin Butte, directly above Applegate Reservoir.

The terrain in which the fires were burning was simply too dangerous to conduct on-the-ground firefighting operations. Boulders and massive old snags fell abundantly on the steep slopes covered in old-growth timber. Crews were pulled out for safety reasons and an indirect approach was taken. This provided the fires some room to grow, with suppression and management to steer the fires from important resources, including homes and private property. Given the resources at risk, the nature of the creeping fire, the rugged terrain, and the resources available, crews did their best to monitor and “loose herd” the fire away from homes and down to safe and effective firelines in the canyon bottoms.

It has not been the severity of the fire that has hampered suppression operations, limiting containment, instead it has been the remote and rugged location of the fires. For numerous days the fires grew, but grew very slowly. Crews prepared the roads below the fires and in the case of the Creedence, Seattle, and Burnt Peak Fires, built fireline as well.

By August 18, the Abney Fire had reached the summit of Windy Peak on the watershed divide between the the Middle Fork of the Applegate River and Elliott Creek.

On August 18, the Abney Fire, Burnt Peak Fire, Seattle Fire and Creedence Fire all saw increased fire activity and made small runs. A heavy inversion of smoke has since covered much of the fire, smothering the canyons in smoke, limiting direct sunlight, reducing temperatures, trapping humidity, and moderating fire severity. 

The fires, although resisting containment in this steep, inaccessible country, have not raced across containment lines, they have gradually grown through low-severity backing fire, roll-out and short uphill runs. The Abney Fire crept into the Elliott Creek, Joe Creek and Middle Fork canyons from the ridges above. The Seattle Fire backed into Applegate Reservoir. The Burnt Peak Fire continued east towards Upper Applegate, and the Creedence Fire dropped into O’Brien Creek. 

The Seattle Fire burning on the evening of August 18 above Seattle Bar and Applegate Reservoir.

To their credit, local Forest Service staff have been working hard to minimize the cumulative impact of suppressing these natural, mixed-severity fires. Applegate Neighborhood Network (ANN) and Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA) have been providing a heavy dose of encouragement and supporting fire crews as long as they are protecting homes, property, ecological and wilderness values. We have also worked hard to inform the community and increase the public’s understanding of fire as both an ecological process and a reality of life. We are following the fires, tracking suppression activities and engaging with both agency staff and fire officials to reduce impacts while effectively protecting our community from the real and imminent threat of wildfire. 

Despite our efforts, two unauthorized bulldozer lines, not approved by local Forest Service staff, were built by suppression crews. One in the Kangaroo Roadless Area to contain the creeping Creedence Fire, and another on Bear Wallow Ridge at the edge of the Abney Fire near Stricklin Butte.

The Abney Fire burns into Joe Bar in the Elliott Creek canyon.

On August 28, the Abney Fire backed at low-severity into the Elliott Creek canyon southwest of Joe Bar, a tiny community surrounded by national forest lands. Fire crews utilized responsible firing operations to protect the community and maintain low to moderate severity effects. No homes were lost. 

Meanwhile, the Abney Fire also burned into higher elevation terrain at its southern perimeter and finally broke through the persistent inversion layer. Here, the fire found some oxygen and went for a run up the west slope of Nabob Ridge and into the Condrey Mountain Roadless Area. I watched from my home as the fire danced across the ridgeline that night, throwing flames high into the sky.

Understory fire burning in old-growth forest at the confluence of Joe Creek and Elliott Creek.

Since this time, the Abney Fire has for all practical purposes been two separate fires: one burning above the inversion in active fire weather, and one burning below the inversion in the cool, moist canyons. In the drafty high country the fire has been more active and will likely be more of a mixed-severity fire, with at least some high-severity effects. Below the inversion the fire is cool and slow, burning mostly beneath the canopy at low severity.

By September 2, the Burnt Peak Fire had begun backing slowly into the Upper Applegate Valley, with the aid of well-placed burnout operations around Palmer and Kinney Creek. The weather and terrain cooperated making the operation smooth and effective. No homes were lost and the fire was low-severity as it backed down the slopes to Palmer Creek Road. 

The Burnt Peak and Creedence Fire are now mostly lined and nearly out, with crews still patrolling the edges. By all accounts the fires were mostly low- and moderate-severity fires with positive ecological effects. 

Low-severity fire backing into the Upper Applegate Valley near Palmer Creek Road.

Also on September 2, the Abney Fire crossed the Siskiyou Crest becoming established above the community of Seiad Valley on the Klamath River. The Klamath National Forest is now responsible for the southern portion of the Abney Fire. They have reportedly conducted several high-intensity burnouts on the Siskiyou Crest, unsuccessfully attempting to keep the fire from crossing the ridge.

The fire is now backing towards the Seiad Valley community from Copper Butte and Cook and Green Pass. The Abney Fire is also heading east into Dutch Creek at the heart of the Condrey Mountain Roadless Area. Fire crews are building fireline below Scraggy Mountain. Fire officials originally proposed a long bulldozed fireline through the Condrey Mountain Roadless Area to the dramatic base of Scraggy Mountain. The Forest Service, with encouragement from ANN and KFA, has reconsidered and is instead building handline through the Condrey Mountain Roadless Area and other sensitive habitats in the Dutch Creek area.

The Abney Fire has also merged with the Seattle Fire and together they are slowly walking up the Middle Fork of the Applegate River and into the Butte Fork of the Applegate at the heart of the Red Buttes Wilderness. Currently the fire is hung up on Echo Creek, but has burned up to the Siskiyou Crest, over Cook and Green Butte and into the fire-dependent Baker’s cypress groves on West Fork Seiad Creek. It is also burning up towards Whisky Peak and its unusual, fire-sensitive Alaska Yellow Cedar stands.

Low-severity fire in the Elliott Creek Canyon.

In the meantime, the Klamath National Forest has been managing the Cedar Fire, burning in upper Thompson Creek, a tributary of the Klamath River. The area is spectacular, unroaded, old-growth forest in the Kangaroo Roadless Area. It has been burning slowly up to the flanks of Pyramid Peak and Figurehead Mountain in the Red Buttes Wilderness for some time. 

On September 3, the Cedar Fire spotted far ahead of the line and further into the Red Buttes Wilderness, igniting fires near Mount Emily that are now burning into the Middle Fork of the Applegate River towards the Abney Fire downstream. Mount Emily also supports the rare Alaska yellow cedar. 

The Cedar Fire has also become established in the Upper Middle Fork near Phantom Meadows and in the headwaters of the Steve Fork. It is possible that the Cedar Fire could merge with the Abney Fire, burning nearly the entire Red Buttes Wilderness and much of the Upper Applegate in one large, mixed-severity fire.

The fires have burned mostly in roadless wildlands, amid intact native
forest and woodland habitats. Benefiting from the smokey inversion and
fighting the steep rocky slopes as they backed into the canyons below,
they have burned at largely low to moderate severity, creating a natural mosaic of fire. The fires are reducing fuels, recycling nutrition,
naturally thinning our forests, and doing good ecological work.

Low-severity fire burning in mixed conifer forest in the Elliott Creek canyon.

The fires have burned over 18,000 acres. We currently do not know how these fires have burned in the backcountry. We have yet to see the effects. We also do not know how they will burn in the future, as the fires continue to smolder, burn or even rage into the fall. What we do know is that they are likely to burn until fall rains drench our forests and douse the flames. 

It is also still unclear how the impacts associated with aggressive fire suppression will damage our wildlands. ANN and KFA will be joining together to explore the Miller Complex Fire and answer those questions with a Miller Complex Fire Report. 

KFA is also tracking wildfires in Northern California with our ongoing Klamath Fire Reports. We intend to document the benefits of wildfire in our region, the actual severity and mosaic of these fires and the impact of industrialized, overly aggressive fire suppression. In these reports we analyze local wildfires and local fire suppression activities, while advocating for region-wide reform of fire suppression policy. Please consider supporting the Klamath Fire Reports by making a donation to Klamath Forest Alliance and make a note to support the Klamath Fire Reports.

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