Burnt Peak Fire: Mixed-Severity Fire in the Applegate Foothills
|The Burnt Peak Fire backed down the slopes of the Collings-Kinney Roadless Area into the Upper Applegate Valley.
I recently hiked the Burnt Peak Fire in the foothills of the Applegate Valley. The fire burned mostly within the Collings-Kinney Roadless Area in a rugged knot of mountains colonized by dense conifer forest, chaparral, live oak woodlands and deciduous oak habitats. The fire burned to the banks of Kinney and Palmer Creeks in the Upper Applegate Valley.
The Burnt Peak Fire started on August 14, 2017 high on the slopes of Burnt Peak, a summit of scrub brush and forest dividing Carberry Creek from the Upper Applegate Valley. Despite burning in the heat of summer and through heavy fuel, the fire backed down the slopes of Kinney and Palmer Creek, at mixed severity. Heavy smoke inversions and moderate weather conditions kept the fire cool in most of the fire area. The majority of the fire burned in the understory of mixed conifer forest dominated by Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, madrone and live oak.
|An understory burn in the Kinney Creek canyon.
In the Kinney and Palmer Creek canyons the fire burned at low severity beneath large, old fir and maple. It crept to the banks of the streams burning undergrowth. Snags and trees undermined by fire crashed to the forest floor and crossed the streams, stabilizing stream banks, holding moisture and creating pools in these small, fish-bearing streams. The Burnt Peak fire deposited a significant amount of large woody debris in the streams, showing that fires can help create better fish habitat.
|The south-facing slope above Kinney Creek after the fire.
Higher on the slopes the fire was mixed, burning some locations at high, low and moderate severity. On the most exposed and rocky slopes stands of stump-sprouting live oak grow among thickets of knobcone pine and greenleaf manzanita. These stands are the remnants of hot, stand-replacing fires that burned between 1854 and 1917. They are fire dependent plant communities requiring periodic stand-replacing fire to persist and regenerate.
Still higher on the southern face of Burnt Peak, dense thickets of post oak, live oak, birchleaf mountain mahogany and silk tassel grow adjacent to small grassy clearings filled with rabbitbrush and laced in tufts of jagged bedrock. The dense brushy thickets burned off, while the fireline built by fire suppression crews stopped the fire just short of the small grassy clearings.
|A view from near the summit of Burnt Peak looking across the Burnt Peak Fire in the foreground to the still burning Abney Fire in the background.
In the distance, the Abney Fire still burned on the northern face of the Siskiyou Crest, just below the Pacific Crest Trail, pouring smoke into the valley below. This summer the forests of the Applegate, from the foothills to the spine of the Siskiyou Crest burned, leaving a legacy of soot, snags, and fire-adapted forest habitats.
After a long summer of smoke filled skies, we have received the blessing of natural, characteristic fire. Our forests have been fertilized with rich mineral ash and armored with nature’s fuel reduction. Our wildlife will feast on the new grass and fresh woody shoots sprouting from burned off hardwoods and chaparral. Hollows burned in large, old-growth trees will become protection for the winter’s slumbering bears or natal dens for the Pacific fisher. Fire-scorched snags will both feed and house generations of woodpeckers and songbirds. Rich fields of flowering plants will carpet the now black, burned soil, providing better habitat for many pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees next spring.
Fire is a natural process, as much a part of the Applegate Valley as the acorns on the oak trees, the salmon in our streams and the towering pine trees. The return of fire brings renewal and life to a landscape intentionally starved of fires for decades. The rejuvenation has already begun, transforming the white ash into green, verdant re-growth.
|Low-severity fire in Kinney Creek.
The Burnt Peak Fire allowed the long-suppressed natural process of fire to once again create a multitude of ecological benefits. The forests of the Siskiyou Mountains are well adapted to wildfire and the effects of the Burnt Peak Fire were both characteristic and beneficial.
The Burnt Peak Fire demonstrates that many forests, just like those on Kinney and Palmer Creek can sustain healthy, mixed-severity fire, despite decades of fire suppression. The current rhetoric of catastrophic fire is a false narrative based more on fear than reality. When you actually walk and explore contemporary wildfires in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains you will find more renewal than destruction and more life than death. These fires are not destroying our forests, they are making them wild and whole again.
|Forests just like this can be found all across the Applegate watershed and are often targeted for commercial thinning by federal land management agencies. We are told that the stand density, fuel loading and species composition makes these stands highly susceptible to uncharacteristic fire effects. We are also told that we must chose to either log these forests, or lose them to high-severity fire. Yet each summer thousands of acres, just like this, burn at low-severity all across our region.