The fire burned through timberland owned by the city of Camas, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and private timber companies.
Camas had originally planned to harvest and replant 1,700 acres of land in the Jones and Boulder Creeks watershed, 10 miles northeast of the city, over a 40-year period. However, the Nakia Creek Fire accelerated this plan; burned trees hold value for a limited time until pests and further deterioration reduce the value of their wood.
Almost 600 acres will be salvage logged through the summer and fall before rain settles in.
The harvested trees will be worth about 10 percent less because of fire damage, but the sales should still generate about $4.1 million in revenue, which will go into the city’s water fund.
Roughly 100,000 trees — primarily Douglas fir — will be planted in the first year of the restoration project at a cost of about $65,000, according to Brian Morris, regional director for American Forests, a nonprofit that provides aid to restore forests affected by wildfire.
It’s an impressive number, given there is a seed shortage from public and private tree nurseries across the Western U.S. Morris chalks it up to “dumb luck.”
Traditionally, nursery contracts for young trees are made at least a year in advance from when they must be planted. Forest managers were late to the cycle following the Nakia Creek Fire, but DNR had an excess of young trees after growing a high density of seeds, some of which they expected to die after transplanting. More young trees survived than expected, yielding a substantial surplus.
Once planted, the city of Camas can harvest the trees in about 40 years.
Trees in the Yacolt Burn State Forest, where the Nakia Creek Fire started, grew after a conflagration of dozens of wildfires ripped through Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties in 1902.
The environment took longer to naturally regenerate following the high-severity burn, which spread across almost 239,000 acres.
Planting seedlings will allow similar stands to grow in 50 years rather than waiting a century to see the forests naturally develop.
“By planting, we’re kind of hedging our bets and helping nature along,” Morris said.
In 2022, 50 fires blazed through 54,300 acres in Western Washington, making it the largest wildfire season that side of the state experienced since record-keeping began in 1984. Fires extended along the western Cascade Range, occurring in most major river valleys.
Fires in westside forests can impact riparian and aquatic systems. Post-fire debris litters forests, while the loss of shade raises stream temperatures and damages fish habitats.
Portions of Jones Creek and Boulder Creek’s headwaters, both water sources for Camas, were burned in the Nakia Creek Fire, as were some of the Little Washougal River’s tributaries. Steve Wall, Camas Public Works director, said there was a minimal impact to the city’s drinking water because the city hadn’t begun using surface water in the Larch area and was still utilizing well fields.
Even so, these burned areas within the basin are likelier to experience increased runoff, flash floods and debris flows for years following the fire, according to a DNR landslide emergency response report following the Nakia Creek Fire.
As Hanson and Morris walked along log stacks to a valley overlook, Morris pointed to tree patches with scorched trunks and green tops on the steeply sloped terrain.
Though the trees show an indication of life in the remaining tufts on their crowns, their immune system has been damaged beyond repair, and the trees’ health will likely continue to decline each summer. Water and nutrients flow up a tree in the thin cambium layer between its bark and wood. When that part of the tree is cooked, those fluids can no longer feed the tree, similar to girdling it — hastening its demise.
It’s harder for young trees to establish themselves in hot and dry summers, especially in historically temperate areas.
Tree managers may predict how the climate will transform in 50 years to find the type of tree that will thrive in those conditions.
Yet there is hope for the land’s recovery. The affected area isn’t as bleak as hotter and drier areas, such as southeast Oregon, which experiences extended droughts that thwart natural tree production.
“We’re in a pretty resilient landscape,” Morris said as he stood surrounded by Douglas fir trees. “The way things are projected to change, we’re going to have to make some adjustments, but it’s not going to be huge.”
The Department of Natural Resources recently added 640 acres of Clark County forestland to the Yacolt Burn State Forest. About 75 percent of the parcel, located at the westernmost section of the state forest, burned during the Nakia Creek Fire. The department allocated $115,000 into reforesting its charred areas. These acres now belong in the Department of Natural Resources Land Bank, a holding area for properties until they can be sold.
Clark County Assistant Fire Marshal Curtis Eavenson said the exact cause of the Nakia Creek Fire is still under investigation, though it has been linked to human activity.
County policy is to ban outdoor burning from July 15 through Sept. 30 each year, but the county intermin fire marshal has banned all land clearing and residential burning until further notice due to the region’s unusually dry and warm spring and early summer.
“Wildfires are natural to this environment, but if we’re going to think that way, we should let nature do it,” Morris said. “Not humans.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.