Lessons on Re-growing a Forest after Wildfire
by Robert Eversole
The summer of 2015 was a rough one in the Pacific Northwest. The 2014/15 winter “that wasn’t” conspired with an even drier spring to fuel the wildfires that have scorched our region. From the Pasayten’s Newby Lake fire to emergency evacuations in the Bob Marshall, I saw entirely too many billowing clouds of smoke last summer. Needing some good news, I took a trip to Haney Meadow north of Ellensburg for a different perspective and to see what the freshly burnt areas will look like in the coming years.
The Table Mountain fire of 2012 was my first introduction to the realities of wildfires. After riding and camping in the clear cool air at Haney Meadow before the fire, I’ll always remember how the smoke stung my eyes while driving past fire camps and under helicopters laden with water buckets on my way to Ellensburg soon after. Three years later, I returned to the Ken Wilcox Horse Camp. This is what I found.
If you’ve heard of Haney Meadow you’ve heard about “The Road” into camp. The drive up Forest Service Road 9712 is much better now, thankfully. The worst of the rocks and holes have been smoothed out and while you won’t break any speed records you can certainly get a living quarters horse trailer in. Now, anyone can visit, camp, and ride. On your way to the horse camp you’ll see plenty of evidence of the 2012 fire in the vast stands of dead trees now haunting the forest. You’ll also see evidence of the re-growth that’s occurring throughout the burn area. July and August visitors enjoyed the masses of fireweed with their purple/pink flower spikes blooming in waist high drifts across the forest floor.
Once you’ve arrived at the camp, you’ll be surprised at how normal it appears. Green pines and firs still tower overhead in many spots and with the exception of a few campsites in the upper loop, most of the camp areas are relatively unscathed. The most noticeable impact are the scores of downed trees both inside and surrounding the camp. Once campfire restrictions are lifted there will be plenty of downed wood for a cozy campfire! In the meantime, enjoy the flickering beauty of the countless hummingbirds enjoying a myriad of wildflowers.
Some parts of the camp are very definitely changed—such as the Haney Meadow Cabin which burned, but the trails in and around Haney Meadow are just as fabulous as they have always been. This can be credited, in large part, to the efforts of the Back Country Horsemen of Washington who have put in untold hours clearing trails, rebuilding bridges, etc., since the fire. When you have the opportunity, be sure to thank the BCHW. Better yet, join your local chapter and help keep trails open for years to come.
When riding and camping at Haney Meadow keep a close eye out for deadfalls. Although the trails have been cleared, dead trees will continue to fall as their roots slowly decay. A trail open now may well have a new log blocking it next week. Hang a saw from your saddle in case you need it and don’t tie to a dead tree. Your horse will not appreciate having his hitching post fall on him!
The Table Mountain fire burned over 65 square miles. To put those 42,000 acres that burned this year in a better perspective, that’s an area larger than the cities of Bellevue, WA, and Berkeley, CA combined. That said, not all of the space within the burn area was completely blackened. The fire ate through the forest in a patchwork leaving some areas charred and others with green branches peaking through the soot. We even saw some trees that were burned on only a single side. It’s well worth a visit if only to experience the uniqueness of riding through a forest of blackened trees towering overhead and into a verdant green oasis and back again multiple times within an hour or even less.