TROUT LAKE — There’s a distinct smell that enters the nostrils when the breezes subside on the south side of Mount Adams.
It’s the odor of burnt wood and there’s little question why it’s so evident — because the blackened, fire-torched trees extend for about 30 square miles.
The Cascade Creek Fire was started by a lightning strike on the lower end of Crofton Ridge on the night of Sept. 8, 2012. Strong winds spread it east into the insect-damaged forest of Morrison Creek basin.
The next day, 40 hikers had to be evacuated to safe trailheads and four were airlifted out by helicopter. Those evacuated on foot were forced to leave their vehicles behind.
By the time rain arrived in the second week of October, more than 20,000 acres from the Aiken Lava Bed on the south side of Mount Adams to Riley Creek on the west had burned.
Fighting the blaze cost more than $15 million and more than 600 personnel were involved at the peak.
It was the largest fire in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest since 1927 and the largest on Mount Adams since at least 1885.
Many trails are inside the burn perimeter including Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail No. 2000, Round the Mountain No. 9, Stagman Ridge No. 12, Shorthorn No. 16, Gotchen Creek No. 40, Crofton Butte No. 73, South Climb No. 183 and Salt Creek No. 75.
Those trails are open again. The Forest Service lifted the special closure in the Mount Adams fire zone in June.
A hike up Shorthorn trail No. 16 provides a look at how some fires burn in a mosiac.
There are large areas of scorched earth with blacken stands of trees waiting to tumble, then rot. But intermingled are partially burned areas and even micro spots of green appearing untouched by the flames.
Wildflowers were blooming in the area by early July. There were impressive numbers of beargrass with its showy white flower blooming from singed bases.
Darryl Lloyd of Hood River and his brother, Darvel, of Portland, hiked off-trail up Crofton Ridge and down Shorthorn trail No. 16 in late June.
The Lloyds formerly operated the Flying L Ranch in Glenwood and have spent countless hours hiking, climbing and exploring Mount Adams.
They spent time on Mount Adams after the Cold Springs fire of 2008.
“We’ve seen how plant regeneration goes into full swing during the first growing season following the fire,” said Darryl Lloyd, who’s writing a book on Mount Adams. “We’ve learned that fire is a natural part of what makes a forested wilderness healthy and beautiful.”
Revegetation after a fire is generally predictable, but influenced by many factors including geology, topography, wind, insects, disease and more, said Jessica Hudec, fire ecologist for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
There are “limitless sources of wonder as species reinhabit a burned area,” Hudec said. Wet locations versus dry sites provide one of the most striking examples of variability.
“Wet meadows and edges of streams and lakes revegetated quickly and were lush with wildflowers in summer 2013,” she said. “Areas of steep, rocky terrain with little soil depth or moisture remained largely devoid of vegetation.”
Some plants are particularly well-adapted to re-establishing in burned areas.
“Snowbrush, for example, can exist for hundreds of years in the seed bank of conifer forests despite limited abundance in mature stands,” Hudec said.
High soil temperature from a severe fire breaks seeds’ dormancy.
Snowbrush is common in the southern and eastern portion of the Cascade Creek fire.
Lupines also need high temperatures to germinate.
Lupine, recognized by its blue flower, is important ecologically because it converts nitrogen from the air into a form other plants can use and releases it into the soil.
“This process of nitrogen fixation is especially important after a fire because surface nitrogen is often lost through burning,” she said.
Beargrass and huckleberries thrive after fires.
“Both beargrass and huckleberries benefit from the increased light that reaches the forest floor after the canopy burns,” she said.
Beargrass, noted for its tall, white bloom, were found throughout the middle and upper elevations of the fire area this spring and early summer.
“Huckleberries are slower to respond, but many burned plants did show new sprouts one year post-burn,” Hudec said. “Additional effects of the fire on huckleberries will become evident over the next five to 15 years.”
Lodgepole pine and quaking aspen are other likely colonizers.
“Aspen was one of the first plants to pioneer the high severity burn areas of the 2008 Cold Springs fire and was found sprouting in various areas of the Cascade Creek fire this summer,” she said.
David Anderson of Trout Lake, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he is looking forward to watching the changes initiated by the fire.
“I think this fire will be nothing but beneficial to big game,” he said. “The amount of forage the Cold Springs fire created is pretty incredible.”
Elk, in particular, like the new growth that follows a fire, Anderson said.
“It will green up a year after the fire and continue to improve every year after that,” he said.
Summer range forage is a key for elk, Anderson said.
“Healthy animals can handle tough winters,” he added.
A fire as big as Cascade Creek undoubtedly caused some loss of small animals, depending on how fast it moved.
“Squirrels, birds, they’ll repopulate as there’s more cover,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of cavity-nesting birds with all the snags.”
The Cascade Creek BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) report prepared by the Forest Service in the days immediately after the fire identified a variety of landslide risks due to decreased root strength. There remains the potential for debris avalanches and lahars, plus “dry ravel.”
Dry ravel is gravity-induced movement of soil and rocks, common after fires.
Mike McConnell, a Gifford Pinchot National Forest hydrologist, said the risk of slides decreases over time as the vegetation comes back, but persists for several years.
“The trees in the higher elevations still have roots, but they are dead trees, and when they start to give way they can add extra woody debris in the channels,” McConnell said.
The BAER report identified potential actions, such as placing sandbags for protection around Morrison Creek Trail Shelter, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. That did not happen in 2012, because snow quickly blocked the roads after the fire.
McConnell made an observation that is quickly apparent to anyone visiting the burned area: “There are a lot of dead trees out there.”
Fifty-six acres of dead trees have been approved for emergency salvage logging.
The sale is several small units on the southwest edge of the fire. The estimated wood volume is 1.65 million board feet. All surviving trees are being left.
It is the only logging planned.
“Most of the area outside of that is in an inappropriate land allocation or too severely burned to go through environmental review quickly,” said Erin Black, a natural resource planner for the Mount Adams District.
Justin Ewer, a wilderness manager/recreation planner for the district, said the removal of the forest canopy due to the fire may have contributed in the snow melting out early.
Once the area was accessible, Forest Service workers put in a hard week and a half removing hazard trees along the roads and trailhead parking areas, he said.
“On the trails, we might take out a tree if it was particularly dangerous,” Ewer said. “There’s an expectation in a wilderness area that you’re going to have some of those hazards.”
Ewer said he has not seen any noticeable flocking to the fire area to observe the burn or avoidance of it either.
Trees will continue to come down for decades after the fire.
“The heaviest downfall across a trail might be seven to 15 years after a fire as the roots rot out,” Ewer said. “They’ll really start to come down in about 10 years.”
Darryl Lloyd, a board member of the nonprofit Friends of Mount Adams, said his favorite quote comes from Richard Hutto, a professor of biology at the University of Montana: “Severely burned forests are neither destroyed nor lifeless.”