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Oct. 29, 2020

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Hiking through the Tillamook Burn: An Oregon forest recovers, decades after devastating fires

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The Storey Burn Trail runs through the Tillamook State Forest in Oregon's Coast Range, near the start of the original Tillamook Burn fire in 1933.
The Storey Burn Trail runs through the Tillamook State Forest in Oregon's Coast Range, near the start of the original Tillamook Burn fire in 1933. Photo Gallery

It’s quiet in the Coast Range forest, the morning mist giving way to blue sky, sun cresting the hilltops and filtering in through the trees.

White light illuminates little brown mushrooms on a rotted log, fallen fir needles on springy moss, the narrow dirt trail that winds above a trickling creek that can be heard but not seen, buried somewhere beneath the thick green brush.

Almost a century ago, the ancient forest in these mountains was in the midst of being logged when a series of fires, the Tillamook Burn, reduced it to ashes. Still at the beginning of a long recovery, the new forest offers a hopeful look into the future as fire continues to ravage Oregon.

After Oregon’s terrifying, historic wildfire season, questions naturally follow: What will these forests look like when we can finally return? How long will it take for the trees to grow back?

That concern is felt strongly around Opal Creek, one of Oregon’s most cherished natural areas, scorched by the Beachie Creek fire just east of Salem. Fire officials have said the area appears to be severely burned, though it will be some time before they know the full extent of the damage.

Dwayne Canfield, executive director of the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, said he’s been grieving for the old-growth forest, as well as for the loss of the historic cabins and several modern buildings that all burned to the ground.

“For me, it’s personally just a great loss of history, a great loss of the way the forest was,” Canfield said. “It’s going to be generations before it’s anything like it was.”

It’s already been generations since the Tillamook Burn scorched the forests of the Coast Range. Not one fire, but a series of blazes that occurred every six years between 1933 and 1951, the Tillamook Burn was long considered Oregon’s most devastating wildfire event in modern history.

The first of the four fires was also the largest, burning 240,000 acres on timberlands east of Forest Grove. The fire began at a logging operation, when a large log was dragged over a downed tree, the friction creating a spark that caught hold. A windstorm 10 days later fanned the fire into a devastating blaze that tore through the Coast Range

By the time the last fire burned through, little was left of the old forest. Historic photos show barren hillsides, littered with gray logs.

Joe Travers, district operations coordinator for the Tillamook State Forest, said while the recent fires were severe, they still didn’t compare to the severity of four major wildfires in the same forest over the course of two decades. By the end, this part of the Coast Range was burned down to the soil.

“The Tillamook is still recovering from the burn,” Travers said. “It looks better now, yeah it’s still a forest, but it’s still being rehabbed in my mind.”

Nearly 70 years since the last of the Tillamook Burn fires, it’s heartening to see a healthy forest thriving where so recently there was nothing, though it wasn’t exactly a natural process.

State foresters replanted the forest by hand, sowing millions of Douglas fir seedlings that they hoped would grow into a “working forest” – meaning one that is regularly logged. Now managed by the state as the Tillamook State Forest, it still operates that way today. Hike to the top of Elk Mountain and you may see logging atop a nearby ridge. Follow the Storey Burn Trail through the forest and a clear cut will soon become visible.

The forest also hasn’t grown as quickly as it could have. Some of those replanted Douglas firs were transplanted from a different part of the state, Travers said, and were more susceptible to needle cast, a fungal disease that makes trees shed their needles and causes them to grow slower. Over the decades, state foresters have planted trees with more resistance to the fungus, while adding more variety and thinning out areas to encourage growth.

“You’re working with nature, not against it,” Travers said. “You hope that you’re making decisions that help it get better and be more diverse and more resilient.”

The hope is that those efforts will help the forest return to some semblance of its former glory. Once the forest reaches about 150 years old, it can be considered old growth, he said, and getting it to survive and thrive to that point is the goal of all their hard work.

Those grieving for the Opal Creek Wilderness, and so many other recently-burned forests in Oregon, might find solace in seeing a forest that is actively recovering from a devastating fire, however long it might take.

Still, it’s an imperfect comparison. The Opal Creek Wilderness is staunchly protected, and forest officials have said they will allow the forest to grow back at its own pace. It won’t be actively restored, as other parts of national forests often are.

“In general in the wilderness, that’s an area where we let natural processes – we just leave the natural process alone,” said Joanie Schmidgall, a public information officer for the Willamette National Forest, home of the Opal Creek Wilderness. “We’ll take a hands-off approach to restoration.”

While the recoveries will ultimately look different, there are still valuable comparisons to find between the newly-burned forests and those burned down in the Tillamook Burn.

Recreation trails that run through the Tillamook State Forest offer an up-close look at what it has become. Occasionally, hikers may come across massive, rotting stumps – evidence of the enormity the forest once held – though most trees are mere shadows of their ancestors: tall but not yet towering.

Those trees may still offer a small bit of comfort to those who wonder how quickly places like the Opal Creek Wilderness will regrow. The Tillamook Burn occurred long before any of that land was set aside for recreation, but for decades Opal Creek has served as a place of natural inspiration.

“It’s a special place,” Canfield said. “There’s a connection people feel to the earth when they are there, and the memories of their experiences.”

For generations to come, memories may be all that remain as Opal Creek slowly recovers. In the meantime, the Tillamook State Forest offers a glimpse into the future, a snapshot of a forest in the midst of recovery.

Travers said he’s been lucky to see the fruits of some of his labor as a forester. Some people will see forests regrow in their lifetimes, others won’t. Accepting a slower pace of time is part of the experience of communing with nature.

“It just takes a long time,” Travers said of the forests. “They’re very resilient, I don’t think people realize how strong nature is at taking care of itself.”

6 places to hike in the Tillamook Burn

1. Gales Creek Trail

The Gales Creek Trail runs 12.7 miles in all, located near the spot where the Tillamook Burn began. The trail is accessed by a few different trailheads, offering hikes of varying lengths. The Summit Trailhead, located on the side of Oregon 6, is the southern terminus of the trail. The nearby Gales Creek Trailhead also offers a seasonal campground. The Gales Creek Trail then runs another 9.4 miles north to the Reehers Camp Trailhead, found on a forest road near the town of Timber.

Find the Summit Trailhead on the side of Oregon 6, about 18 miles west of U.S. 26. The Gales Creek Trailhead is located just east of the Summit Trailhead, down a signed forest road that is gated in the fall and winter.

2. Storey Burn Trail

The Storey Burn Trail connects to the Gales Creek Trail, offering another look at the recovering forest near the beginning of the Tillamook Burn. The Storey Burn Trailhead is located halfway down the trail – go north for a Coast Range viewpoint or south to find a dense stand of deciduous trees. You can also access the trail via a short hike from either the Gales Creek Trailhead or the Rogers Camp Trailhead.

To find the Storey Burn Trailhead, take Oregon 6 about 18 miles west of U.S. 26 to Storey Burn Road, located on the north side of the highway near the Summit Trailhead. Follow the road for 1.8 miles to the trailhead sign, and take a short spur road to the left to reach the trailhead.

3. Elk Mountain

A short, but difficult trail leads 1.5 miles up the side of Elk Mountain, offering stunning views of the Coast Range from the summit. Looking out over the mountain range, you can get a sweeping view of the recovering Tillamook State Forest, and may spot some active logging operations as well. The steep trail may require extra caution in the rainy season.

To reach the Elk Mountain Trail, begin at the Elk Creek Trailhead, found near the Elk Creek Campground. Take Oregon 6 about 23 miles from U.S. 26 and turn right onto Elk Creek Road, following the road until it ends at the trailhead parking lot. From the big trailhead sign, go left and hike about .3 miles to a signed junction with the Elk Mountain Trail.

4. Kings Mountain

Kings Mountain is slightly longer and a little less steep than neighboring Elk Mountain, but the 2.4 mile hike to the top is still plenty challenging. Views at the summit are phenomenal, and wildflowers grow in abundance come spring and summer. This is another trail that may become more dangerous during the rainy season.

Find the Kings Mountain Trailhead on the north side of Oregon 6, about 26 miles west of U.S. 26. Continue past the junction with the Wilson River Trail to continue up to the Kings Mountain Summit.

5. University Falls

Nestled into a small, forested canyon in the Tillamook State Forest, University Falls is a beautiful little waterfall found at the end of a remote trail. Signage is sparse on the trail to the waterfall, but the quick hike is less than a half mile each way. University Falls can run dry in the summer, though during winter and spring its flow is plenty strong.

To find University Falls, take Oregon 6 west and turn left onto Beaver Dam Road, following a sign for Rogers Camp Trailhead. Make the first right to stay on Beaver Dam Road, and in .7 miles turn right onto University Falls Road. Follow the gravel road for 2.6 miles to the University Falls Trailhead. From the trailhead sign, go left and then right to go into the forest. Stay straight across two gravel roads, and look for a colorful, painted sign for University Falls. Go left at the sign and follow it to the waterfall.

6. Wilson River Trail

The Wilson River Trail is a phenomenal long-distance hiking trail that runs 22.6 miles from Elk Creek to Keenig Creek. There are several trailheads to access both the east and west portions of the trail, including the popular Footbridge Trailhead and a trailhead behind the Tillamook Forest Center, which currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wilson River Trail can be accessed at several trailheads along Oregon 6: Elk Creek, Kings Mountain, Jones Creek, Tillamook Forest Center, Footbridge and Keenig Creek. The popular Footbridge Trailhead is located on the north side of Oregon 6, about 31 miles west of U.S. 26.

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