After the fire, healing begins at Steigerwald

Nature starts taking its course at wildlife refuge in Washougal

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoAn Oregon white ash was charred last week by a fire at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

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Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge fire

A wildfire that consumed some 50 acres Oct. 5 at Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge was visible to motorists and residents near Washougal. Many readers sent photos to The Columbian. Here is a gallery of those photos.

WASHOUGAL -- One week after a wildfire scorched almost 150 acres of the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, it could be several more weeks before humans begin some replanting and restoration efforts.

Mother Nature? She's already started.

As the first rains of the fall season fell Friday, the first signs of that process were apparent. Fresh mounds of dirt from moles and other animals dotted the burned area. Tiny green shoots of canary grass had emerged, reaching skyward through a blackened mat of charred earth. Birds chirped overhead.

"Even though it looks like it's destroyed, nature has evolved to live with grass fires," said Wilson Cady, environmental education coordinator with Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards.

Whatever path the natural recovery takes, the immediate future of the Steigerwald area remains unclear. The 1,049-acre refuge is closed to the public indefinitely while officials decide what to do next, said refuge manager Jim Clapp.

Among the top priorities: rebuilding a section of the popular Gibbons Creek Wildlife Trail that was destroyed in the fast-moving fire. Where a boardwalk carried the trail over a seasonal wetland, through a tunnel of willow trees, only the charred supports of the structure remain. Only time will tell if the willow trees themselves survived the fire, Clapp said.

"I just don't know," he said. "We'll just have to wait until spring."

Refuge officials next week plan to apply for about $100,000 through a federal program to help with such rehabilitation work, Clapp said. If secured, the money would help cover the trail rebuilding and other restoration efforts across the burned area. That may include reseeding grass, repairing fencing that was torn out to give firefighters access within the refuge and removing fire lines that were dug around the perimeter of the fire to keep it from spreading, he said.

Some benefits

It may be four to six weeks before refuge officials find out if they'll get extra funds for restoration, Clapp said.

Despite widespread damage, the fire wasn't all bad news for the refuge. Flames consumed a large amount of blackberry plants, which may give crews and volunteers a leg up on controlling the invasive species in those areas, Cady said. Reseeding grass elsewhere may help keep other potentially invasive plants like thistle from taking hold, Clapp said.

The canary grass that largely fueled the fire isn't considered a native plant, either. But its aggressive nature should allow it to come back quickly, Clapp said.

Cady figured most refuge animals -- deer, coyotes and rabbits among them -- likely got out of harm's way before the fire spread. Anything that didn't may have already been found by other scavengers, he said. Some wildlife likely was forced to another part of the refuge.

"The real impact is, they have less habitat to use now," Clapp said.

Investigators from the state Department of Natural Resources and other agencies continued to inspect the fire area Friday morning. The blaze is believed to have started just off state Highway 14, on the north end of the refuge, then moved west toward Washougal. The fire didn't reach other parts of the Gibbons Creek trail. It left areas closer to the Columbia River untouched.

The refuge will remain closed to the public until the trail is repaired or managers decide otherwise, Clapp said. Upcoming events already scheduled at Steigerwald, however, will still happen, he said.

Until temperatures drop significantly, Cady and Clapp expect the burned area to continue its natural recovery through the fall. Both called the progress already made "amazing."

"Next spring," Clapp said, "you won't even hardly know it was burned."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.