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Sucker Creek, the infamous China Left Timber Sale and the Slater Fire

Bolan Lake following 2020 Slater Fire
Looking north from near the summit of Bolan Mountain and Bolan Lake following the 2020 Slater Fire. Photo credit: USFS
A view from near the summit of Bolan Mountain north to Bolan Lake and into the Sucker Creek watershed in 1934. This photograph is part of the Osborne Lookout Photo series taken by the Forest Service in the 1930s. It shows historic fire effects that are similar to those of the 2020 Slater Fire.

The Slater Fire started on the evening of September 7, 2020 as a human or accidental ignition near the Slater Butte Lookout, just three miles east of Happy Camp, California and above the rugged Klamath River canyon. Although it is believed that the fire was started by high voltage power lines owned by Pacific Power, the ignition source has not yet been confirmed by Forest Service fire investigators; however,  lawsuits have already been filed against Pacific Power. Regardless of how the fire started, the ignition coincided with unusually strong easterly winds and historically low humidity levels.

By the morning of September 8, the fire was building momentum and spreading rapidly to the west and northwest across the Indian Creek watershed. The fire’s giant smoke plume and convection column began creating its own wind, blowing down trees and promulgating even more extreme fire behavior.

During this fire storm, embers thrust ahead of the flaming front created a multitude of spot fires and led to the ignition of many homes. Within hours of the fire’s ignition, and with virtually no notice for local residents, the community of Happy Camp was aflame. Unfortunately, the Slater Fire burned with such fury in those early hours that Happy Camp simply did not stand a chance.

Tragically, over 200 homes were lost, doing incredible damage to the small community. Many residents sadly lost their homes and all their belongings in the fire. The weather patterns, the fire intensity, the unbelievable ember shower, and the speed at which the fire approached left many unable to prepare, safely evacuate or effectively defend their homes.

The Slater Fire burning on Slater Butte above Happy Camp on the morning of September 8, 2020. Photo Credit: Mid-Klamath Watershed Council

After the fire devastated Happy Camp on the morning of September 8, it continued burning to the west, running into the recent, sprawling fire footprints of the 2017 Eclipse Complex Fire and the 2018 Natchez Fire. Combined, these two fires burned almost 140,000 acres in the rugged Siskiyou Wilderness Area and the surrounding watersheds just a few years before the Slater Fire began. Even under the most severe weather conditions these recent fire footprints created an impermeable barrier, roughly 20 miles long (north to south) and between 1 and 15 miles wide (east to west). Despite the howling wind and low humidity, this vast area of recent fire footprints refused to burn, steering the fire to the north, towards the Siskiyou Crest, the California/Oregon border and the Illinois River Valley.

By the evening of September 8, the fire had burned over the Siskiyou Crest near Bolan Lake and Bolan Mountain. Throughout the evening the fire continued barrelling down the northern slopes of the Siskiyou Crest towards the Illinois Valley in upper Althouse Creek, Sucker Creek and the East Fork Illinois River watersheds.

Twenty four hours after the Slater Fire began its incredible wind-driven, high severity run, it had already burned approximately 120,000 acres. Unbelievably, the Slater Fire was now burning not only on the slopes above the Illinois River Valley including Sucker Creek, but it had also worked its way north of the recent Eclipse and Natchez Fire footprints, jumped Highway 199 and burned into the Smith River watershed.

By September 9, the Slater Fire had backed downhill from Bolan Mountain and Tanner Peak into the Sucker Creek watershed. The winds had died down considerably, the humidity levels had risen some, and a dense smoke inversion began to settle in, moderating fire intensity. The forests of Sucker Creek contain almost no recorded fire history and most had not burned in over 100 years, yet weather conditions allowed the fire to burn at largely low severity.

This fire map from September 21, 2020 demonstrates the influence of recent fire footprints such as the 2017 Eclipse Fire and 2018 Natchez Fire, which became a barrier to the fire’s western spread. The Slater Fire is shown in yellow and was surrounded on three sides by recent fire footprints (shown in red and orange). The Slater Fire burned north into unburned terrain near the California/Oregon border.

Although the Slater Fire will likely be remembered for its big, wind-driven run, and the community of Happy Camp will forever remember the fire as a tragedy that burned down many homes and disrupted many lives in the remote Klamath River community, the story of the Slater Fire is complex and multifaceted.

Like all wildfire, the Slater Fire was highly diverse and conditional, but this fire was undoubtedly extreme. For less than two short days the fire raged, leaving a lasting mark across the southern face of the Siskiyou Crest and the Indian Creek Watershed. During this dry, windy period vast acreages burned in large swaths of stand replacing fire; however, what is likely to be forgotten is the additional month of slow moving, low to moderate severity fire that burned in the many watersheds feeding the East Fork of the Illinois River, including Sucker Creek.

A soil burn severity map of the Slater Fire published by the Forest Service. The green polygons denote low severity fire effects, while the yellow denotes moderate severity fire effects, and red depicts high severity fire. Notice the swath of high and moderate severity fire that correlates to the wind-driven firestorm of September 8. These areas sustained very high levels of vegetation mortality. Also take note of the extensive low severity fire effects on Sucker Creek on the northeastern fire perimeter, along Thompson Creek and Thompson Ridge, on the eastern margin, and on the western portion of the fire on East Fork Illinois River and Smith River.
This fire progression map published by the Forest Service documents the extent of fire spread in the first two days (shown in purple), while the remaining portions of the fire burned much more slowly. The red, yellow, orange and light blues demonstrates that minimal fire growth was sustained outside the first 24 hour burn window.

Sucker Creek, the China Left Timber Sale & the Slater Fire

The Slater Fire backed down steep, heavily forested north-facing slopes as a low severity, understory fire in Sucker Creek. The fire crept down to the southern bank of the Left Fork of Sucker Creek and largely put itself out as it backed into the lush riparian area.

A stronghold for old-growth forest, the headwaters of Sucker Creek drains both the Siskiyou Crest and the Grayback Range, a high, north-tending spur ridge that divides the headwaters of the Illinois River from the Applegate River watershed. These spectacularly wild headwater streams drain the westernmost portions of the Red Buttes Wilderness Area and the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area.

Old-growth Douglas fir on Left Fork of Sucker Creek.

Sucker Creek supports some of the largest runs of coho salmon remaining in the Rogue River basin, and was designated a key watershed under the Northwest Forest Plan. Large portions of Sucker Creek have also been designated as a Late Successional Reserve for the benefit of the Northern spotted owl and other wildlife species requiring old-growth and late successional forest habitats.

I personally have a special affinity for Sucker Creek because it was one of the first watersheds I worked to defend. While just a teenager growing up in southern Oregon, I spent two summers blockading roads and timber sale units in the notorious China Left Timber Sale. This old-growth timber sale was originally approved under the 1989 Hatfield/Adams Rider that allowed ancient forest logging to continue in Northern spotted owl habitat without judicial review. In 1991, the Ninth Circuit Court authorized an injunction delaying award of the sale, and in 1993 the timber sale was withdrawn when Fish and Wildlife deemed the project’s impact on Northern spotted owl Critical Habitat “unacceptable.”

In 1995, President Clinton signed the Salvage Rider, which was attached without congressional debate to a spending bill authorizing relief for Bosnian refugees and victims of the horrific Oklahoma City bombing. The infamous Salvage Rider exempted so-called “salvage” and “forest health” timber sales from environmental laws, allowing many old-growth logging projects to move forward, including the China Left Timber Sale high on the slopes above Sucker Creek.

A t-shirt printed with the Sucker Creek Free State logo.

Throughout the Pacific Northwest protests and protest camps sprang up in response to the widespread and illegal old-growth logging authorized under the Salvage Rider. During the summer of 1996, well before logging activities began, activists blockaded and occupied Forest Service road 4612-080 and created the “Sucker Creek Free State” along Limestone Creek.

The Sucker Creek Free State was a backwoods protest camp precluding access to old-growth timber sale units on the Left Fork Sucker Creek. A series of trenches and debris piles of wood and rock were piled up in the roadbed. The gate at the bottom of the road was permanently closed and activists created a series of cement and stone barricades extending up road 4612-080 to Limestone Creek, where an old, rusted pontiac was taken off its wheels and placed across the roadway.

Each barricade included metal locking devices that allowed activists to lock their wrists into metal pins cemented into the ground. This allowed  them to peacefully and effectively block access to the logging units above using non-violent civil disobedience. Wooden tripods were also erected with tipi poles where activists could sit dangerously perched high above the roadbed, also blocking passage to motor vehicles, bulldozers and/or logging equipment. The idea was to risk significant bodily harm if authorities attempted to remove you, thus protecting the old-growth forests above.

Siskiyou Forest Defenders logo

A random, but inspired assortment of local residents and activists, known collectively as the Siskiyou Forest Defenders, camped on the road for the entire summer protecting the old-growth forests. Yet in the fall of 1996, the permanent encampment was raided by Forest Service law enforcement and after many, many hours of resistance, locked down activists were removed and arrested. The free state was bulldozed and access was gained not long before snows began to fall in the high country.

On New Years Eve, heavy warm rains fell on deep mountain snow unleashing floods, debris flows and landslides across the Siskiyou Mountains. On Sucker Creek, Forest Service road 4612-080 blew out in numerous locations and throughout the spring and summer of 1997 activists worked to disrupt road reconstruction, blockade the timber sale units and disrupt logging operations with varying levels of success.

In the end, after two years of peaceful civil disobedience and the hard work of hundreds of local residents and activists, successful litigation over impacts to threatened coho salmon canceled the timber sale. Yet, when the court finally intervened, only approximately 50 of the 530 acres approved for logging remained standing.

Although at the time the Forest Service insisted, amid great controversy, that China Left must be logged to increase forest health and reduce future fire severity, the actual effects of the project lie in stark contrast to the cynical claims of the agency. Unfortunately, the legacy of this false narrative continues today as federal land managers increasingly log intact native forest habitats in the name of “forest health” or “fuel reduction.”

Although the agency claimed to be logging the China Left Timber Sale for “forest health,” the devastation is clearly evident 20 years later in 2017.

The China Left Timber Sale included 12.7 million board feet of old-growth timber, including 274 acres of clearcut logging and 256 acres of selective old forest logging. Units included Late Successional Reserve forest, Riparian Reserves, old forests near Horse Mountain, and old-growth logging units on the edge of the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area on Left Fork Sucker Creek.

Ironically, following the Slater Fire it has become evident that both the China Left Timber Sale units and other logging units in the area burned at much higher severity than the surrounding unmanaged forests. In fact, these logged over areas created some of the only high severity fire effects on the ridgeline dividing the Right Hand Fork from the Left Fork Sucker Creek (see the photo essay below).

Although in the end it was a minor victory, a major inspiration and a devastating loss, the China Left Timber Sale, taught me to love, defend and embrace the forests of the Siskiyou and set me on the path I follow to this day.

The lush Port Orford-cedar and Douglas fir forests in Left Fork Sucker Creek burned at low severity in the Slater Fire, blackening the massive, old trunks, but maintaining the tall, green canopy.

Recently, I explored the beautiful Left Fork Sucker Creek Trail from Kester Mine to Brush Creek on the Slater Fire’s northeastern perimeter. The Slater Fire burned the entire Right Hand Fork Sucker Creek, and over the tall, forested ridge extending down from Swan Mountain, only to smolder out at the water’s edge on the lush southern bank of the Left Fork Sucker Creek.

Although I had not hiked this wild canyon in many years and it had just burned in the Slater Fire, it was in fact, the same spectacular canyon of lush, old-growth forest I had remembered. The forests between Kester Mine and Brush Creek consist of massive Port Orford-cedar, girthy Douglas fir and sugar pine, along with tall, wide-branching tanoak, live oak, madrone and chinquapin. These forests grow like a cathedral above the banks of Left Fork Sucker Creek as it pours through dark boulders, rushes down small bedrock shoots, quietly glides through riffles and cascades off the stream’s abundant instream wood into clear, cold plunge pools.

The rugged canyon of Left Fork burned in the understory, while maintaining the spectacular multi-layered canopy so important for the Northern spotted owl. While the canopy remains almost uniformly green, the forest floor is a mosaic of burned black soils, charcoal covered nurse logs and unburned patches of lush green moss, rhododendron, huckleberry, Oregon grape and vine maple.

The low severity fire effects in Left Fork Sucker Creek maintained cool, moist microclimate conditions, while depositing additional woody debris into the stream corridor that will benefit fisheries.

Before the fire, Left Fork Sucker Creek already contained the largest concentration of instream wood in the watershed, with some reaches containing over 400 pieces per stream mile. During the fire, additional trees and snags burned, fell to the forest floor and into the rushing creek, creating complex habitat for the native steelhead that travel this far upstream. These downed trees also create structure, maintain pool habitat and help to provide cold, clear mountain water that sustains the mainstem of Sucker Creek during the dry summer months.

Looking up Right Hand Fork Sucker Creek to the tall, forested ridgeline extending east towards Swan Mountain, with fire effects from the Slater Fire.

In just a few years, the signs of understory fire in the Left Fork canyon will soften as lush green growth again swallows the forest floor. Freshly burned cavities and catfaces will provide vital denning habitat for the Pacific fisher and hibernating black bear. New cavities chiseled by pileated woodpeckers into soft, fire-killed snags will become abundant nesting habitat for a multitude of species. Broken top snags will provide resting perches for local raptors; large populations of white headed woodpeckers will feast on the insects, grubs and beetle larva attracted to freshly killed snags, and standing Douglas fir trees that survived the fire will support the red tree vole.

Life will go on as it always has in the upper reaches of Sucker Creek. The forests will continue to stand tall in the canyons, provide habitat for a wide variety of forest species, and shade the watershed’s rushing streams.

The Sucker Creek watershed remains largely unchanged following the Slater Fire. Complex old forest and dense canopy still dominates the upper canyon, providing habitat for the Northern spotted owl, Pacific fisher, and goshawk, while providing cold, clean water for the important runs of coho salmon that spawn downstream.

The Slater Fire is essentially a tale of two separate fires: the wind-driven inferno of September 8 that will leave a lasting legacy of fire-killed snags across the landscape, and the slow moving, understory fire that dominated the rest of the active fire period and burned in the understory at the headwaters of Sucker Creek.

Left Fork Sucker Creek tumbles down the western slope of the Grayback Range at the northeastern margin of the Slater Fire.

Slater Fire Google Earth Aerial Photo Essay

Fire Effects on the North & South Slope of the Siskiyou Crest near Bolan and Tanner Lakes

The north and south slope of the Siskiyou Crest near Bolan and Tanner Lake after the 2020 Slater Fire. Notice the vast stand replacing fire on the southern slopes of the Siskiyou Crest at the headwaters of Indian Creek. This area sustained significant wind-driven, high severity fire effects on September 8, 2020. Also notice the more mixed fire mosaic with significant green forest on the north slope of the Siskiyou Crest at the headwaters of Sucker Creek and at the top of the image. These slopes were somewhat sheltered from the strong winds on September 8, and large portions of the Sucker Creek watershed burned at low to moderate severity under a heavy smoke inversion, cooler temperatures, higher humidity levels and minimal winds after the big wind event.

Indian Creek in 2018 before the Slater Fire

Upper Indian Creek and the Siskiyou Crest near Bolan and Tanner Lakes in 2018, before the Slater Fire.

Indian Creek after the Slater Fire

The same image as above showing upper Indian Creek and the Siskiyou Crest near Bolan and Tanner Lakes, after the 2020 Slater Fire.

Sucker Creek in 2018 before the Slater Fire

The Upper Sucker Creek watershed in 2018 (facing south) before the Slater Fire. Bolan Lake is the big blue lake at the right corner of the image, while Tanner Lakes are located near the top at the left.

Sucker Creek after the Slater Fire

The same image after the Slater Fire at the headwaters of Sucker Creek. Notice the mixed severity fire mosaic with significant understory fire. Also take note that nearly every visible logging unit burned at high severity.

Fire effects in the Red Buttes Wilderness near Tanner Lakes and Sucker Creek

Fire effects at Tanner Lakes and Right Hand Fork Sucker Creek in the Red Buttes Wilderness, and the flank of Swan Mountain in the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area following the Slater Fire.
A close up of Tanner Lakes in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area showing a mixed severity fire mosaic.

Fire effects on Thompson Ridge above the Klamath River

An aerial view of Thompson Ridge after the Slater Fire showing a strong contrast in burn severity. The western face of Thompson Ridge in the Indian Creek watershed (left) was affected by high winds and burned at high severity on September 8, 2020. The eastern face of the ridge draining into Thompson Creek (right) burned at low severity as the fire backed downhill against the strong winds, creating very little overstory tree mortality.

The China Left Timber Sale and the Slater Fire

Right Hand Fork and Left Fork of Sucker Creek before the China Left Timber Sale

A 1993 aerial image of upper Sucker Creek directly below the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area and Red Buttes Wilderness Area, and before the China Left Timber Sale. The image shows Swan Mountain and portions of both the Right Hand Fork Sucker Creek and portions of Left Fork Sucker Creek. Notice the patchwork of clearcuts and the selective logging near the center of the image with clear skyline yarding corridors. The large clearcuts at the top of the photo were cut in 1974, while the remaining logging was implemented in 1991.

Right Hand Fork and Left Fork of Sucker Creek after the China Left Timber Sale

The same location in 1998 following implementation of the China Left Timber Sale. Notice the extensive logging of old-growth forest that occurred in the upper 1/3 of the image during the summer of 1997. This fresh logging is a particularly devastating portion of the China Left Timber Sale. Also notice the landslide triggered by the rectangular clearcut at the center of the image. This landslide let loose during the 1997 New Year’s Flood.

Right Hand Fork and Left Fork of Sucker Creek after the Slater Fire

The same location as above in November 2020, after the Slater Fire. Notice how the high severity fire effects are concentrated in previous logging units, including the China Left Timber Sale, the selectively harvested unit and staggered clearcuts from 1991, and the rectangular clearcut at the center of the image.
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