SPRAGUE RIVER, Ore. — Before disaster struck, cattle rancher Suzanne Gallagher said she didn’t like seeing thinning or controlled fire operations on the grazing land she leased from the U.S. Forest Service. She believed the work was good but found it disruptive.
“To be honest, I wanted them to leave,” she said.
Then, on July 6, a lightning strike nearby started the Bootleg Fire, a wildfire that would burn more than 400,0000 acres of south-central Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest and become the third-largest wildfire in state history.
The fire consumed hundreds of homes, killed thousands of animals, both livestock and wildlife, and destroyed valuable timberland.
Gallagher’s Whiskey Creek Ranch lost 25 cattle and forage to the fire, but they found that in the Black Hills around Spodue Mountain, their grazing allotment hadn’t all burned equally. Some patches were soot-black with scarcely a living thing in sight, while in other stands the ponderosa pines still boasted gingerbread-colored trunks and green needles.
The difference lay in how each stand had been managed before the wildfire. Areas where the Forest Service and Klamath Tribes had thinned the forest and set prescribed fires survived best.
Now, Gallagher said, she’s grateful for the forestry work that saved the land she holds dear.
“I love that country,” she said, lifting her eyes to the hills.
The Bootleg Fire, though devastating, has provided researchers with the opportunity to study how various forest management practices influenced wildfire behavior.
The Forest Service manages most of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Most acres were untreated when the wildfire struck, but the Black Hills region, where Gallagher’s cattle graze, had received small-scale thinning and prescribed fire treatments.
One other area that received treatments before the Bootleg Fire hit was the Sycan Marsh Preserve in the upper Klamath Basin. Its 4,713 forested acres are owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, or TNC, an environmental organization.
Before the wildfire, TNC managed different blocks of trees — called project areas — using different management techniques. The Bootleg Fire burned through all the stands, but the aftermath looks drastically different in each.
Untreated areas were incinerated. Areas that had been only thinned or treated with controlled fire survived relatively well. An area that received both thinning and prescribed fire survived best.
“It’s a living laboratory,” said Pete Caligiuri, TNC’s Oregon forest program manager and ecologist.
Although a quantitative assessment won’t be completed for 12 to 18 months, TNC staff released a qualitative assessment this month. Already, they say, the trees tell a story.
The Nature Conservancy dubbed an overgrown control area of untreated forest in the Sycan Marsh Preserve “Control South.”
When the Bootleg Fire hit Control South, flames were more than 100 feet tall, said Katie Sauerbrey, TNC’s Oregon fire program manager and burn boss.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
Sauerbrey was walking through the area Nov. 18, stepping across ash-mud and avoiding stump holes. A soft, insistent wind crept past the black, naked trees, whispering: shhhhhhh.
This was far from the first wildfire to rip through the region. But ecologists say the Bootleg Fire was more severe than past fires.
The last time a fire of this scale touched the region was in 1918, but its impacts were different. According to Andrew Merschel, Oregon State University research ecologist, patches of high-severity burns were only in the tens of acres in 1918. In the Bootleg Fire, patches of hundreds to thousands of acres experienced high-severity burns.
In 1918, according to Keala Hagmann, a University of Washington research ecologist, the portion of this region that experienced stand-replacing fire, or fire that kills most of the trees in a stand, was only 6%.
In contrast, the Bootleg Fire was so severe that 58% of the burned region experienced stand-replacing fire, killing some 400-year-old trees that had survived seven or eight previous fires during comparable droughts.
So, what changed?
Based on agency records, archival photographs and the analysis of tree rings, Hagmann and Merschel say that in the early days of European settlement, low-intensity fire was a frequent feature on the landscape. Some was natural, caused by lightning, and some was cultural, prescribed fire set by the Klamath Tribes on their ancestral lands. As a result, the forest was characterized by old trees, open stands and limited amounts of brush.
“We lived with fire,” said Don Gentry, Klamath tribal chairman.
At the Sycan Marsh Preserve, for example, Caligiuri of TNC said fire burned through the preserve every 13 years on average.
But starting about 130 years ago, according to researchers, new ideas about forest management and a national culture of fire suppression took root. Agencies stamped out fires without letting them burn as they would naturally, creating denser forests.
Although small patches of the Fremont-Winema National Forest have been treated with prescribed burns, fire in most of the forest has been excluded for decades, causing fuel buildup.
“You know how it works from building fires on the beach. The more fuel you put there, the hotter your fire’s going to be,” said Hagmann.
That, TNC leaders say, is why Control South burned severely.
Just north of Control South stands Pronghorn, named after the hoofed animals resembling antelope that graze there.
Sauerbrey, of TNC, said 350 acres of the Pronghorn area were treated with prescribed fire in 2008.
When the Bootleg Fire burned through Pronghorn, she said, it had mixed results but did minimal damage.
“I was so happy that I cried,” said Sauerbrey.
Around her, the trees wore a mix of orange and green needles, and their trunks showed little charring.
Ecologists say they’re hopeful the evidence from Pronghorn will help others see the value of controlled fire.
“The answer is prescribed fire. We’ve got to get prescribed fire out on the landscape at a large scale,” said Judd Lehman, district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service for the Chiloquin and Chemult ranger districts.
Lehman said Oregon laws, including air quality regulations, liability laws and permitting requirements, currently make it difficult to conduct prescribed burns.
James Johnston, Oregon State University College of Forestry research associate, said lack of capacity, personnel and funding, along with the anti-prescribed burn culture, are also obstacles.
“Folks don’t wanna breathe smoke in the summer,” said Johnston. “They don’t want to put up with even a miniscule chance of a prescribed fire escaping and damaging communities. And in so doing, they’re accepting the far greater risk of an out-of-control wildfire doing very serious damage.”
Klamath tribal leaders say native families, too, have largely “bought into” anti-prescribed fire ideology in recent decades.
Gentry, the tribal chairman, said younger generations have come to fear fire.
Steve Rondeau, Klamath Tribes natural resource director, agreed.
“The tradition has largely been lost,” said Rondeau. “I’m working to help members of the tribe become more comfortable with prescribed fire.”
Tall Jim is a project area in which 850 acres were “ecologically thinned” between 2015 to 2017, meaning small trees were harvested so the forest would be less dense. TNC staffers were planning to follow up with prescribed fire, but they didn’t have the chance before the Bootleg Fire struck.
On July 18, the Bootleg Fire was roaring through the forest at such a large scale that it was creating its own weather. Everything in its path was incinerated.
“You couldn’t drop enough retardant on that fire to make it blink an eye,” said Sauerbrey of TNC.
But when the Bootleg Fire reached Tall Jim that day, it burned less intensely through the stand.
On Nov. 18, as TNC staff walked through the preserve, they pointed out mixed-severity impacts.
Many tree trunks were blackened, but some retained their natural color. Some needles were green, but most were orange, and orange needles lay underfoot like a great throw-rug.
Caligiuri, of TNC, said Tall Jim shows that “thinning is an important first step, but there’s more work to be done most of the time.”
The Forest Service, tribal leaders, TNC staff and many ranchers agree that thinning is important to forest health and can make forests more wildfire-resilient. Despite this common ground, a conflict remains: They disagree on what thinning should look like.
Ideologies have shifted through the decades. Gone are the days of massive clearcut timber harvests, and experts say the ideology of old-guard environmentalists — the idea that all logging is bad — is also slipping out of favor.
Many groups traditionally at odds with one another now agree that mechanical thinning, removing trees with harvesters and feller-bunchers, is important. These groups, however, still disagree on exactly which trees should go and which should stay.
The Nature Conservancy’s idea of “ecological thinning” involves replicating the forest’s historical patterns of tree density and spatial complexity, mainly removing small-diameter trees and leaving old-growth, fire-resilient trees standing.
The Forest Service has similar ideas, though the agency is more liberal in allowing larger-diameter trees, worth more as timber, to be harvested.
Although some conservation groups still favor removing only small, low-value trees, many researchers say harvesting some large sawlogs is not only reasonable but wise.
“The profit margins in most areas, approximately 80% of the landscape, are quite small, and removing material without incurring a financial loss usually requires the removal of sawlogs,” Johnston, of OSU, said of a recent study. “It’s a reasonable tradeoff, a good tradeoff. Saw timber is part of what needs to come out of the woods to manage fuels and reduce fire risk.”
Long Creek, another research plot at the preserve, shows what can happen when an overgrown stand of forest encounters the brute force of nature.
Here, the twisted, blackened carcasses of giant trees lie uprooted: these once-great sentinels of the forest are gone forever.
What happened here?
Sauerbrey of TNC said she remembers looking toward Long Creek on July 18 and seeing 200-foot flames leaping over the ridge and twisting into a giant fire tornado.
“The column of fire was rotating in a way I’d never seen in 15 years of firefighting,” she said.
Sauerbrey told her crew to pull out and drive toward safety.
From a hillside, Sauerbrey stood with a few Forest Service friends, watching the tornado.
Then something happened: “The column suddenly fell flat on its face.”
Sauerbrey got in her car and drove closer to investigate.
Thinned, prescribed fire
The answer was found in the Coyote Fuels Reduction Project, a research block. The 5,000-acre plot, a shared project area between TNC and the Forest Service, had been thinned in 2016 and received a prescribed fire treatment in 2019.
When the 200-foot flames from Long Creek reached Coyote, they fell to about 4 feet tall. The fire “cooked through” the untreated stand, Sauerbrey said, but “crept through” this treated area.
As TNC staff walked through the forest this November, it was clear this stand had survived best, a green island among black and orange hills.
The ponderosa pines stood tall, full of life and color. Forbs and grasses poked through soft brown soil. Unlike the other blocks, this one smelled like a forest.
Forestry experts say the Coyote area shows that thinning and prescribed fire treatments are most effective when done together.
Caligiuri of TNC said he would like to see this kind of proactive forest management scaled up across the West in dry forest systems.
The Bootleg Fire left one big management question unanswered: How did grazing impact wildfire spread?
Experts say more research is needed to fully answer that question.
Recent studies show that although overgrazing can damage landscapes and limit the effectiveness of prescribed fires, moderate, well-managed grazing can reduce dangerous fuel loads, promote ecosystem health and tame high-intensity wildfire.
In California rangelands, researchers Devii Rao and Matthew Shapero, of the University of California Cooperative Extension, have found evidence that grazing helps limit fuel loads and meaningfully reduces flame lengths in range fires. Little research, however, has been done yet in forest systems.
Ranchers, including the Gallagher family, say they would like to see more research on the benefits of forest grazing, and OSU’s new “Cattle Plan,” published Oct. 19, called for research and extension programs to evaluate just that.
Although there’s still more research and work to be done, many people — ranchers, tribal leaders, Forest Service rangers and TNC staff — say they’re hopeful that the Bootleg Fire will be a tipping point into a new era of better forest management.
“There is a silver lining here,” said Caligiuri of TNC. “There’s an opportunity to learn.”