Bolt Creek Fire Check-in

Scouting a recent burn (Oct 2022) close to home this winter with an ecologically minded friend revealed an intimate portrait of success and failure in forest health. Gazing up the mountainside of the picture above, just off Beckler Road, there is a patchwork of clear cuts, stream setbacks, and regenerative forestry plans. There are federal guidelines for public lands in each state, providing ecological restoration as a number one priority. In many parts of this 14, 766 acre burn, pockets of seed banks survived to reinvigorate the landscape with new forest, while in other parts of the landscape, rock protected groves on cliffs where the flames could not reach. Walking a recently repaired and gated road near Rout 2 on public forest land, we were socked in by moisture, but still gazed in awe at destruction and survival at work. The Bolt Creek Fire was allowed to burn out within its fiery acreage after a perimeter was created to protect nearby towns and infrastructure.

The area mapped below gives an approximate area of focus for these pictures. The fire burned much of the southwest side of Klinger Ridge and Baring Mountain. The stream picture is Bolt Creek, where the fire started- hence its name.

In places where there was running water, marshes, and wetlands, trees remained scorched only at the base, and in some cases, completely protected from direct flames. This does not mean all the trees in this condition will survive, but many will seed out this spring from the stress signal of intense heat, filling the surrounding open soil with fresh seeds. There is also no guarantee of complete restoration back to forest all at once. Fire is a transformer, opening up new ground within a forest, playing a vital role in reshaping landscapes to enhance diversity of species and growth opportunity. Many Western Cascade species are well adapted to fire, and even in a landscape that may seem barren and utterly ash ridden, complex relationships hold true, and new life is already blossoming out with new growth.

Some of the most seemingly wiped soil bases were young commercial timber replantings. The seedling trees did not stand a chance against the heat and licking flames crawling up the hillsides. This is the down side to a stand of trees all the same age in a managed lumber production forest. Luckily, forest harvesting practices are evolving to recognize smaller stand cuts with better buffers between young stands. This methodical cutting practice was mentioned in an earlier article about wind blow down and other natural “disasters” facing our landscapes. Human manipulation with a single vision of production for industry has been short sighted for many generations, and are still reluctant to give up profits for protected ecology. Ecosystem valuation is a recent development in forestry, but it’s a compelling argument in letting a tree grow and mature to old growth within a living stand, playing a crucial part of our earth’s lungs over it’s mere commercial board feet at 30-40 years for short term investor profits and consumer goods.

I recommend a deep dive into value theory if you’re game for some good learning. I think it helps us understand, as a society, some big shifts in value that’s happening right now. Exponential growth is not sustainable or thriving for us as a species, and we’re starting to figure this out. Wilderness has much to show for remaining a place of left to its self in peace. As markets take a turn, please take a moment to revisit your own value system and check out some new ideas around quality vs. quantity. This digression has been a pleasure. Now, back to the fire and forest and ecological miracle of relationships that have been evolving over millions of years.

Nature flows well in the chaos of time and space. Many cycles of sudden death unfold for us short lived species in amongst the trees. Gaultheria shallon shows a green face amongst the char and wilt. Roots buried under rock and stump were sheltered from furnace blast and will reset a trail of repair amongst the soil layers now rich with carbon. There will be an ecological boom in this area as the light hits the ground running, and opportunistic plants and animals close in on new ground. In places where the trees still stand, there is still cleared forest ground where the understory burned back, but again, roots underground and a long term relationship with fire make plants like our native oso, salmon, and salal berries ripe for regeneration after fire. Other understory trees like vine maple and hazel accelerate new growth after fire removes old wood in low temperature burns. Below is a great example of a place in the Bolt Creek fire where the flames crept across the ground and did not jump up into the canopy. This is a text book image of what a controlled burn looks like.

The burn strip along rout 2 is also home to a set of vital high voltage power lines, which were defended successfully from fire damage, though many trees were cut down to aid in stopping the burn from destroying this vital infrastructure. The fire has been out now for a few seasons, and though landslides and drastic erosion on these steep hillsides will remain a threat for years to come, the ecological restoration is already in action, spurred by the very elements that shape all life on earth- wind, water, earth, and fire. The forest recovery will be a great continued lesson in addressing fire in our rainforest, something more common than ever now as the summers get hotter and winters fail to deliver enough rain and snow to protect our watersheds. Damp earth did a lot to stave off a great conflagration, but having two early fall burns happen in the summer of 2022 within 20 miles of our home was unprecedented. But wildfires do have a history in Western Washington, and we must always remember the inherent risk of fire, living in any woodland ecology.

At EEC, we plan for a healthy forest with a lot of water staying and sinking in to ensure damp soil when fire does come through. Our creek is similar in size to Bolt Creek, and would offer some protection for seed bank if a burn does happen, but the smoke would make staying on the land in a large burn impossible. We do have evacuation ready plans for our safety, and the safety of our animals, but if a great fire did occur, we’d be lucky to get out alive, as our access points in and out of Snoqualmie Valley are somewhat limited. Out-driving a conflagration would be impossible, and even with breathing filters, we’d be in real trouble from smoke inhalation before any fire got to the land. Being trapped by fire on foot in never good either. The Bolt Creek fire did chase some hikers, who not only survived, but took footage of their harrowing escape. Note the quick movement of live flame up the mountain side. Our ridge would encourage fire, but it would not come up easily from The Snoqualmie River Valley, our downhill terrain. If the river had been left undeveloped by logging and agriculture, there would be a strong buffer of wetland and shifting river course flowing south to north.

In the maps above, you can see our farm forest restoration is up the draw north from Stuart, just above a place in The Snoqualmie River, where the waters shift west and cradles our outcrop of glacial drift, volcanic ash, and colluvium.

A general term applied to any loose, heterogeneous, and incoherent mass of soil material and/or rock fragments deposited by rainwash, sheetwash, or slow, continuous downslope creep, usually collecting at the base of gentle slopes or hillsides. (USGS)

The landscape is like a giant sponge, holding in water, which seeps down from all the watersheds just to our east in The Cascades. I’ve highlighted major water features, lakes and rivers, in blue. The red markings are fires in Fall 2022. Yes, there were two, and I’ve only just now mentioned Loch Katrine Fire. because it was less a threat to human development, and burned out quickly once rains returned in early November. This local news video shows more. We got a lot of smoke, and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the site post burn for more understanding of the blaze. The private timber company has discouraged going to the area- with good reason because of erosion hazards mentioned earlier. Public forests lands where the fire started, are currently inaccessible.

We’ll continue to hope for abundant waters to help quell fire danger in our temperate rainforest. May the ever flowing rivers, which keep life flourishing, and quench thirst for all who drink; continue singing cascades of cherished fresh water. When fires burn, and they will, we invite gentle ground flames of rejuvenation, and minimal damage to infrastructure. Plan building in defensible space, or accept total devastation as a possible consequence. Control burns are usually very effective at helping forests remain resistant to crown fires, when there is too much vegetation- due in part to a loss of native grazers like elk and deer, and their habitat, to make room for vacation homes and RV setups. This amplifies risk of fire to the public, and hinders natural checks and balances evolved with fire to prevent conflagration. People did not replace the equivalent ecological work of huge migrating elk herds; merely exploited them and the people already well established in the area and replaced them with clear cutting timber industries that still do not mimic nature well.

Our continued hubris as a species will be our undoing. Nature will shake us like a bad case of fleas and move on in her evolution quite capably. The earth does not have to sustain us to continue, in fact, much of this planet’s history was uninhabitable for life as we know it. The scales will tip again, unfortunately, our consumption and abuse of our ecological balance will be the root cause of the coming mass extinction. There is no cure all, but we can, as individuals, choose to consume less, local, and aid in restoration of what wilds we can. We can educate ourselves about ecology, the complexities of nature, and our best practices within the finite limitations around us.

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