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Nov. 28, 2021

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Trapper Creek Wilderness rebounding after Big Hollow Fire

Area has reopened, but much restoration work remains

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The aftermath of the Big Hollow Fire will require years of monitoring and work to prevent invasive weeds, flash floods and dangers to humans. (Courtesy U.S.
The aftermath of the Big Hollow Fire will require years of monitoring and work to prevent invasive weeds, flash floods and dangers to humans. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service) Photo Gallery

LONGVIEW — A little over a year ago, the Big Hollow Fire sparked in the Trapper Creek Wilderness area, eventually burning around 25,000 acres in a month and closing that portion of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The area reopened to hikers in August 2021 after cleanup, stabilization and safety work was completed. But that isn’t the end to the restoration, even as the area starts to bounce back.

Recovery takes time, Gifford Pinchot fisheries biologist JD Jones said, and has different stages.

“When the fire first happens, we go through all the different stages of fighting the fire and putting it out,” he said. “That next step is to do Burn Area Emergency Response.”

BAER team

In a Burn Area Emergency Response, a broad team of scientists examines the area to catalog the dangers to human life, natural resources and cultural resources. The scientists provide the transition between fighting the fire and restoring the area. Jones was the lead for the Big Hollow Fire BAER team.

“The things we usually find are danger trees, unstable trails, possible places where there could be debris slides, rocks coming down, or where you go up a road and a tree falls and you can’t get back out,” Jones said. “That’s a totally different danger people don’t often think about.”

The team includes soil scientists, hydrologists, trail builders, recreation staff, fisheries biologists, engineers and other specialists who build a comprehensive picture of damage and dangers. This time, everyone on the team was from the Gifford Pinchot staff, which Jones said doesn’t usually happen. It meant “we had our people on the ground who know” the area.

Aside from identifying the dangers, Jones said, the team looks at the probability of the risk actually happening and the consequences of it.

“Could we lose a road? Could someone die? Could you get hurt? What are the possibilities of that happening?” he said. “It’s really important we go through that process to identify what’s out there, what resources are at risk and what’s the probability of that happening.”

If it’s a high probability to a moderate chance, the team makes a plan about the best and most cost-effective way to address the danger. Trees at risk of falling on roads or trailheads might be preemptively felled. High-risk places will be closed to people in the longer term. A burned-soil map was created for Big Hollow to see where landslides might occur.

During and after the fire, the Big Hollow trail and Siouxon trailhead and the roads to get to them were closed, because “we didn’t want people to get stuck back there,” Jones said.

There is some urgency to ensure that roads and infrastructure such as signs, gates and toilets are protected before winter comes, because if a strong rainstorm washes over the area before culverts, roads and trails are repaired, the entire area could wash out, Jones said.

“It’s a big complex, and we felt we were pretty successful,” he said. “We were able to identify those risks and close the areas and also stabilize the trails.”

Moving forward

The work doesn’t end after BAER finishes its work, Jones said. This summer, a botany team was out looking at invasive species, focusing on early detection and rapid response to make sure native plants can gain a toehold.

“We got some funding for planting, for throwing out native seeds like early grasses that take root real quick, so that was also a big success,” he said.

The Siouxon trailhead now starts 2 miles west of the original location in an area with fewer dangerous trees, but Jones said those choices happen after the BAER team comes in.

“BAER is a middle way to get you to this post-restoration,” he said. “We generally act in the initial week to two weeks, as soon as possible. The idea is to try to take away the emergency, get people out of harm’s way.”

On Aug. 9, the Big Hollow Fire closure was lifted, reopening the Siouxon-area trail system, trails within Trapper Creek Wilderness and trails accessed by Forest Road 64.

A bridge over Chinook Creek was destroyed in the fire and has yet to be replaced, however. And primitive trails 195, 198 and 202 have not been cleared and are very difficult to follow.

Hikers should be prepared for rapidly changing conditions and avoid the burned area during or immediately after high winds, heavy rains and winter storms, as those could trigger tree fall and landslides.

Jones said that while there tends to be enough funding for emergency and firefighting responses, it can be harder to get money for long-term restoration and rehabilitation.

“We were able to get all the funding we needed to accomplish what we deemed as an emergency,” Jones said. “Money for gates, funds to keep some seasonal (employees) on a little bit longer to help fix the trails, things like that.”

The early-detection rapid response teams for invasive plants also were funded for the entire season this year, which Jones said was “big,” but “what about five years down the road?”

“Often times, we do really well at putting the fire out and being able to get people out of harm’s way … but after that, sometimes it can get forgotten,” he said.

Jones said there are “motions at work to hopefully get those types of tools and teams,” and he would love to do more proactive work, like prescribed burns and restoration.

Fire in the landscape

While the Trapper Creek Wilderness area is rugged and remote, which made firefighting tricky, Jones said no creeks with endangered fish were threatened and fire crews did not have to use large equipment in sensitive areas, which makes post-fire restoration a little easier.

Areas that had been clear cut in the past were hit a little harder and will take longer to rebound to what they looked like before, Jones said, especially as the changing climate makes previously riparian areas drier. But growth already is happening.

Jones said the Big Hollow Fire was more of a “healthy burn,” and while it prompted evacuation orders, no injuries were reported. Such burns can help show the natural role fire plays in forests, and in this case the fire cleared out space around old-growth trees and will allow them to grow larger.

“The fire, in my mind, was a beautiful mosaic,” he said.

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