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home : current news : current news August 22, 2017

6/18/2013 12:56:00 PM
'Winners and losers' in Pole Creek Fire
Monte Gregg explained the Pole Creek Fire’s impact on wildlife during a Friday tour of the burned area. photo by Jim Cornelius
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Monte Gregg explained the Pole Creek Fire’s impact on wildlife during a Friday tour of the burned area. photo by Jim Cornelius

Sisters area citizens got a close look at the impact of the Pole Creek Fire on a tour last week. photo by Jim Cornelius
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Sisters area citizens got a close look at the impact of the Pole Creek Fire on a tour last week. photo by Jim Cornelius

By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

Parts of the landscape south of Sisters are a blasted desolation, ravaged by high-intensity burning in the Pole Creek Fire in September 2012. Other parts remain green. Some birds have seen their home habitat destroyed, while others are enjoying a moveable feast in ideal habitat.

That is the picture of the post-Pole Creek Fire world seen by more than 100 total participants in two wildfire tours on June 14-15, sponsored by the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, the Sisters Ranger District, and Deschutes Fire Learning Network.

At a series of stops over five-and-a-half hours, participants heard from forest scientists, wildland firefighters, Sisters Ranger District personnel - and each other - on a range of topics from forest ecology to wildlife and fish impacts and salvage logging.

The chance to walk the ground and see first-hand the patterns of wildfire, the beginnings of recovery and the impact of forest restoration projects was a boon to citizens who seek to better understand the profound impact fire has had on Sisters Country over the past decade.

"This is the first time I've really got a mental picture of the whole (thing)," said one tour participant.

East-side forests experienced fire regularly, as far back as there is evidence, according to ecologists. But after Euro-American settlement took hold, fire was suppressed, to protect property and resources. Unchecked by low-to-moderate intensity blazes, the forest grew thick and choked with fuel that feeds fires of catastrophic intensity - blazes that destroy trees, vegetation, soils.

Looking out over a vast swath of burned countryside, Tom Spies , a forest ecologist, told the assemblage that "the vegetation will come back, but it may come back in different ways. I would expect ponderosa pine to come back, but the time frame is questionable."

"This is far from a natural fire," said Dave Priest of the Sisters Ranger District. He expressed skepticism that a natural reseeding of the denuded slopes would restore ponderosa pine.

Despite the devastation, there were many green areas, which surprised and pleased many of the citizens on the tour. The area immediately around Whychus Creek saw some burning but remains largely green.

Fish biologist Mike Riehle noted that there is some reason to be concerned about sedimentation from erosion and its effect particularly on efforts to restore spawning fish. He'll be monitoring those impacts. But he also noted that the creek area will recover swiftly from the short-term impacts of the fire, such as a rise in water temperature due to shade loss and temporary spikes in nitrogen and phosphorous related to ashfall.

Wildlife specialist Monte Gregg of Sisters Ranger District emphasized that there are "winners and losers" among wildlife in a burned area.

Spotted owl, northern goshawk and the American marten, which all prefer dense forests with closed canopies, are suffering a major loss of habitat. But other species have a brand-new smorgasbord.

"The woodpeckers are the winners," Gregg said. As bugs move in to the burned, dead timber, the birds follow.

"There's a phenomenal amount of foraging available for a variety of woodpeckers."

That feast will last about five years, Gregg noted, then it will drop off as high-quality snags deteriorate.

Large mammals also benefit.

"The deer do really well in these post-fire environments, said Gregg. A hunter, he reported that conditions will make for "some of the best hunting in the past 10 years."

Asked about the mortality of animals during the fire itself, Gregg said that direct fire deaths are uncommon.

"I've never seen any animals consumed by the fire," he said. "I think a lot of them sidestep it."

Silviculturist Brian Tandy explained why the district is only allowing salvage logging on a tiny portion of the fire area - about 1,000 acres. Logging will only be allowed in areas where it is already identified as an appropriate activity; no sensitive areas will be logged.

Tandy also gave a thumbnail sketch of which trees are likely to survive being scorched.

Looking at several areas that had been mowed, thinned and burned in forest restoration projects, fire specialist Trevor Miller emphasized the importance of using prescribed fire for wildfire protection (robbing fires of dense fuel buildups) and restoration of a more natural forest condition.

"Prescribed fire is a necessity on the landscape," he said.

Phil Chang of the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, who is a leader of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, notes that over the past several years a broad consensus has developed across a range of interests - from the timber industry to forest managers to environmental activists - that forest restoration projects are beneficial both to forest health and the protection of


The Deschutes National Forest was one of the forests to receive Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration funds allocated by Congress in 2009.

"We were one of 10 projects chosen from across the country," Chang noted.

Those funds - $1 million a year for 10 years (subject to annual appropriations) - will treat a significant amount of land. However, it's only a small proportion of the forest land that managers believe needs to be treated.

DNF superviser John Allen told The Nugget that of the 1.8 million acres on the Deschutes National Forest, 350,000 have been identified as being in high need of treatment now.

"We're getting funded to do about 25,000 a year now," he said.

Even as acres are treated, more acres will be entering a state that calls for treatment, he noted. And, as Miller pointed out, one treatment is not enough. After a few years, fire needs to be introduced again.

"The job is never done," Allen said.

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