Was Eagle Creek Fire good for the Gorge?
Jonathan Soll is a science and stewardship manager who has worked for Metro regional government for the past eight years. The Outlook asked the forest expert a few, well, burning questions about the Eagle Creek Fire and its aftermath.
OUTLOOK: Let's get down to it. Was the Eagle Creek Fire a good thing?
SOLL: Fire is a completely natural part of the ongoing cycle of life of a forest. Some of our forests have evolved to burn more or less often... but in the Cascades and the Columbia River Gorge, fire is really integral in creating wildlife and fish habitats.
(It also) greatly reduced the accumulation of fuel in some areas, and will reduce the chance of a similar fire occurring in the near future.
OUTLOOK: But didn't a lot of trees die in the fire?
SOLL: Just because a tree is dead doesn't mean it stops being an important part of the ecosystem. I joke with people, though it's not really a joke, but once a big tree has died it almost becomes more alive than it was.
OUTLOOK: What do you mean?
SOLL: Dead trees are insect factories, and insects are food for a lot of other animals.
Animals like the pileated woodpecker, house wren, bats — the lists goes on and on — rely on cavities in (dead) trees. A dead tree is really an important part of a living forest.
OUTLOOK: Weren't animals killed by the fire as well?
SOLL: Any person with a heart is going to feel bad about animals being burned to death in a human-caused fire, and I'm no different. I have a soft heart and I feel bad about that too.
But in a larger perspective, this is just the way nature works. And if it hadn't been a human-caused fire this year, it would have been a lighting-caused fire sometime (later).
OUTLOOK: OK. So what happens to those dead trees over time?
SOLL: Very few trees in a forest fire are completely burned into charcoal. That's just not how it works.
At first the needles fall off onto the ground, and that's like a gift to the soil. All that material that blocks raindrops from hitting the soil directly helps the soil rebuild organic material.
A big tree that falls to the ground with its bark very much intact, it's a couple hundred years before that thing is unrecognizable. That's what science geeks like myself call a biological legacy.
OUTLOOK: Will the Gorge be different?
SOLL: Certainly it's a very different forest. The most intensely-burned areas of the Gorge are going to be very different for the next 20 to 100 years.
And it's a very different experience walking through a post-fire forest even. For those people whose greatest pleasure is walking through a cool, shady forest — those heavily-burned areas are not going to provide that particular experience.
OUTLOOK: Are volunteers needed to "save" the Gorge?
SOLL: For the most part, I think nature can take care of itself. Nature knows how to plant plants.
There's a human inclination to want things to be tidy, and the recovery or the response of the forests — it's not tidy. There's going to be landslides, there's going to be erosion, and that's all part of how the system works.