WASHOUGAL — As Jim Clapp walked past a row of blackened willow trees, he took the thin end of a branch between two fingers. He began to bend it.
The branch didn’t give much. It let out a loud snap instead, breaking off a brittle piece into his hand.
“See, that’s dead,” Clapp said. “It’s dead.”
It’s been almost six months since a fire scorched nearly 150 acres of habitat at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It will be longer still before the full impact of the fire is known. But a popular trail severed by the damage is now open, welcoming visitors as the refuge’s natural recovery process continues.
Among the biggest changes on the Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail is evident at the “willow tunnel.”That’s where a wooden boardwalk used to carry the trail between two rows of willow trees, sheltered by branches overhead. The structure was destroyed by the fire, and in its place now sits a simple gravel path between the trimmed, but still-charred, trees. The trail is now accessible from the reopened main entrance to the refuge from state Highway 14, just east of Washougal.
Officials had initially hoped the boardwalk could be rebuilt after the October fire. But cost estimates landed in the tens of thousands of dollars — money the refuge simply doesn’t have, said Clapp, the refuge manager. Workers and volunteers ultimately used 36 tons of crushed rock for the job, donated by local construction company Tapani Underground.
It’s unclear whether the willows themselves will ultimately survive. Signs of new growth have emerged from the tops of a few of them. Others remain unchanged. Their fate should be more apparent later this spring, Clapp said. But the refuge likely won’t take any action to remove them any time soon, he said.
“The fire burned so hot (there) because of the boardwalk wood, it probably did a number on the willows,” Clapp said. “We’ll just have to wait and see and hope for the best.”
In other parts of the Steigerwald refuge, signs of the fire are less evident or gone entirely. Lush green grass quickly regrew and covered much of the burn area, Clapp said. Even some bushes are showing signs of life with the arrival of spring.
Washougal resident Jill Foster walked the Gibbons Creek trail Tuesday with her son, Garret, 14, and his friend, Noah Bumala, 12. The three had made their first visit to the refuge since the trail reopened last week, snapping photos of birds along the way.
As frequent visitors to the 1,049-acre refuge, Foster said she and her family “were just sick about” the fire that closed it last fall. All three were happy to return and find a still-thriving habitat.
“We see different birds every time we’re out here,” Foster said, later adding: “This is one of the gems of Washougal.”
The fire is believed to have started near the highway from hot vehicle exhaust, according to the refuge. Dry, windy conditions quickly pushed the flames west, keeping response crews busy into the night.
Washougal Mayor Sean Guard helped coordinate the rock donation that eventually restored the trail. Guard walked it Friday, he said, and expects many more to return to do the same in the coming weeks and months.
“I think that has been demonstrated over and over in just the last few days,” Guard said. “Once that gate is open, it gets used.”