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Siskiyou Mountain Range

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2017 Creedence Fire: The Smoke has cleared on Grayback Mountain

A view into the headwaters of O’Brien Creek from Grayback Mountain. Both sides of O’Brien Creek Meadows and the forested ridge to the right underburned in the Creedence Fire, leaving a rich, green forest canopy.

The Creedence Fire began with a strike of lightning on August 14, 2017 and burned in the back-country surrounding Grayback Mountain and the Kangaroo Roadless Area. Two fires were ignited, one on the lower slope of Bigelow Creek, and another high on the ridge near O’Brien Creek Meadows in the Grayback Mountain Botanical Area, at the headwaters of Carberry Creek. The two fires later merged to become the Creedence Fire, the westernmost fire in the Miller Complex.

Grayback Mountain is one of the Applegate Valley’s most iconic and well-loved landscapes, rising to 7,048′ above Thompson Creek, Carberry Creek and the Williams Valley. The forests, meadows, and wilderness-quality landscapes surrounding Grayback Mountain are cherished by hikers, wildflower enthusiasts, and various outdoor recreationists for their beauty and ecological integrity. Grayback Mountain is also a major watershed divide between the Applegate River and Illinois River watersheds. 

A beautiful underburn in white fir forest on the southwest flank of Grayback Mountain, in the Kangaroo Roadless Area.

The Creedence Fire burned 2,093 acres on both sides of the divide, including portions of O’Brien Creek and the Sturgis Fork of Carberry Creek, as well as Little Creek, a tributary of the Illinois River.  

Fire severity in the Creedence Fire was extremely minimal, with the vast majority of the fire burning at low severity. Forests of varying ages, compositions, stand densities, fuel profiles and structural conditions burned at low severity. Nearly all the old, fire-resistant forest in the Creedence Fire burned in the understory, clearing fuel and maintaining canopy conditions. Where high-severity fire did occur, it did so in ecosystems
where high-severity fire is both healthy and beneficial, such as montane
chaparral, knobcone pine and fire-mediated hardwood stands. These plant
communities are dependent on high-severity fire and do not build
natural fire resistance. Instead, these habitats are resilient to high-severity fire and respond with increased vigor and significant regeneration.

Fire severity in the Creedence Fire was heavily influenced by atmospheric inversions, favorable local weather patterns and slope aspect, with south-facing slopes sustaining higher fire severity. Pre-fire vegetation patterns also played a role in shaping the mosaic, but fuel loading and stand density had little influence on fire effects.

Species such as knobcone pine depend on stand-replacing fire for regeneration. Periodic high-severity fire promotes vigor, regeneration and renewal in the montane chaparral and knobcone pine plant community.

Recently, the Forest Service lifted a few of its fire related road closures, allowing access to much of Sturgis Creek. Currently, O’Brien Creek Road and the O’Brien Creek Trail are not open for public use and the Grayback Mountain Trail on adjacent BLM land is also temporarily closed. Although the roads and trails are closed, the area is open to rugged, cross-country hiking. A few mornings ago I drove up Sturgis Creek to check things out. 

I parked at the southeast corner of the fire near the banks of Sturgis Creek at about 3,200′. I started up the steep, south-facing slope, first in plantation forest, then into the Kangaroo Roadless Area. 

Dense stands of chinquapin, madrone and live oak grew from rocky slopes along with widely scattered old-growth fir. The massive old fir grow as isolated individuals among the vast groves of hardwood trees. The fire in this portion is mixed, but the large old conifers have mostly survived.

Green leaf manzanita burls.

As I climbed onto increasingly steep, dry, rocky and exposed slopes, the character of the fire changed. The fire ran through the greenleaf manzanita, young live oak, chinquapin, massive, wide-branching knobcone pine, and scattered populations of maturing ponderosa pine and Douglas fir at high severity. 

Although small patches of forest remain, the southwest-facing slope has mostly burned off, leaving the charred root burls of stump-sprouting greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphlyos patula) and the ghostly, scorched-off snags of conifer trees. The odd looking manzanita burls store abundant energy in their bulging root crowns, and the energy is utilized following high-severity fire. The shrubs will sprout back from the charred, black burls. Although not dominant within the stand, a significant population of relatively old knobcone pine burned in the fire, leaving distinctive snags, their branches lined in fire-opened seed cones. 

Chinquapin resprouting weeks after the fire.

To some, the effects of the high-severity portion of the Creedence Fire may appear catastrophic, but for this ecosystem fire represents renewal. The manzanita, live oak and chinquapin will resprout; in fact, the chinquapin has already burst back to life with the fresh green shoots of a new tree, no more than a few weeks after the fire swept through this stand. Knobcone pine is a serotinous species, meaning the heat of fire, especially stand-replacing fire is required to open the resin-sealed pine cone, releasing the seeds and triggering germination. High-severity fire is required for regeneration and renewal in the montane chaparral and knobcone pine plant community that dominates the slope. The Creedence Fire blackened the slope in this particular spot, and in doing so will reinvigorate this specific habitat type, maintaining biodiversity on the landscape. 

The big forested ridge in the foreground underburned in the Creedence Fire. To the untrained eye one would hardly notice. The vast underburn provided fuel reduction, recycled nutrition and restored the natural fire process to these long unburned, old-growth forests in the Kangaroo Roadless Area.

When I reached the ridgeline above the fire seems to have slowed, burning in a mosaic pattern. The fire thinned the Douglas fir, white fir and ponderosa pine groves, clearing understory fuels and recycling nutrition. The vast majority of the stand’s largest trees, including ponderosa pine up to 6′ in diameter, survived the fire. The north slope dropping into O’Brien Creek burned at low severity, beneath massive, old fir trees. Climbing the ridge, the underburn continued through a variety of stand types dominated by white fir. 

Still climbing upward, I finally broke out of the forest and into open manzanita fields, speckled in symmetrical young fir, some bronze and scorched, while others remain green, vibrant and unscathed. Broad views extend to the south and east. The Abney Fire billowed in the distance, pouring smoke across the jumbled ridges and rugged canyons of the Siskiyou Mountains. 

The green forests and wet meadows in upper O’Brien Creek burned only at the margins. A few stringers of trees were burned in the rocky outcrops, and patches of brush burned in the rocks. For the most part very little has changed on Grayback Mountain.

The rocky ledges offer protection to fire sensitive mountain hemlock then drop into the headwaters of O’Brien Creek, a lush green band of meadow below the rocky summit of Grayback Mountain. Although the fire burned on either side of the meadows, the wet meadow habitat created a barrier for the Creedence Fire and moderated fire severity even further.

As I climbed the ridge towards the summit of Grayback Mountain, the fire burned in a patchy mosaic, torching off patches of manzanita and groupings of windswept fir. The fire burned around, but did not consume the small, disjunct population of bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) about halfway to the summit. The small, sparse bench of crushed granite provided a fuel brake, protecting the bitterbrush.

As I climbed towards the summit a misty rain fell and clouds swirled around the surrounding canyons. After a few hours of hard hiking and nearly 4,000′ vertical feet, I reached the jumbled mound of white granite boulders at the mountain’s 7,048′ summit and suddenly the sky cleared. 

A view southeast across the Kangaroo Roadless Area and the Creedence Fire from just below the summit of Grayback Mountain.

I looked out across the Siskiyou Mountains and thought of the political firestorm still raging as the wildfires of 2017 smolder and burn themselves out. I thought of how these natural, unavoidable events are exploited and manipulated to create fear, that in turn feeds political and economic interests. Wildfire, is just that, wild and largely uncontrollable. It exists outside the realm of politics and has no concern for the controversy it creates. It is a natural phenomenon existing in an largely unnatural world. 

Despite the claims of catastrophic fire and devastation, the mountains remain cloaked in a rich green veil of forest, albeit streaked and spotted in the reddish hues of fire-scorched trees. These are fire dependent, fire-adapted systems whose health and vibrancy is intimately tied to a random streak of lightning, an electrical pulse of energy, heat, and finally flame. The diversified forests of the Siskiyou Mountains were born in fire and have been shaped by its influence for millennia. 

The heavily forested ridge in the foreground drains into Little Creek, a roadless tributary of Grayback Creek. The ridgeline and the drainage below burned in the Creedence Fire as a vast, low-intensity underburn.

Now that the smoke has cleared and the fall rains have moistened the dry summer air and sun-baked fuels, we can see through the haze and past the fear. When I looked out across the mountains I felt no regret or sorrow for what was lost, instead I saw a familiar, decidedly functional landscape, undergoing transformation and change. 

In the Applegate watershed, much was gained. Fire was restored to over 37,000 acres, and in some of the most intact habitats in our region. It is my hope that through these fires our forests have become more diverse and fire-adapted. It is also my hope that our human communities can adapt and evolve to embrace this raw elemental force and celebrate the beauty of fire’s influence. We must learn to live with fire. It is a vital natural process, with the power to shape our landscape and the ability to capture our minds.

Fire can be destructive in a sense, but like nature’s phoenix, it brings renewal. May that renewal continue, both on the landscape and in our collective minds. Fire is a part of life in the Siskiyou Mountains, it is as natural as the wind and rain. As a society we must find ways to embrace and appreciate the role fire plays. 

From the Creedence Fire looking south across Sturgis Creek to Steve Peak. Let us celebrate the beauty of nature’s phoenix.