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News / Northwest

Decades of research burned in this Oregon forest. Now it could hold clues to wildfire mysteries

By Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times
Published: October 2, 2023, 6:03am

CORVALLIS, Ore. — It was a single lightning strike, deep in the heart of the forest. When he saw the smoke, Robert Mutch knew it was trouble.

“I was just kind of watching it with dread,” said Mutch, a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service who was overseeing remote and difficult terrain on the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains southeast of Corvallis. “I knew it was not going to stop.”

He called in the smoke Aug. 5 that would mark a permanent turning point for the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, one of the most closely studied forests in the world. At nearly 16,000 acres, or 25 square miles, the Andrews is home to a haven of biodiversity and old-growth forest studied over the years by hundreds of researchers. It is not the first time the forest has been touched by fire. But it is its first major blaze, so severe that the forest has been closed to anyone but firefighters, and its headquarters evacuated.

For weeks now, scientists with decades of work at stake have been watching and waiting from afar, to see what they will come back to whenever the fire is finally out and they are allowed to begin what is suddenly the next phase of the Andrews’ purpose: probing, as scientists can see in no other place, the processes and results of wildfire and wildfire management.

Since the fire started, researchers have been living a mix of emotions, grief, loss, anxiety, excitement — for what they can learn from the forest now — and guilt for feeling excited.

The Andrews was established in 1948 by the U.S. Forest Service and is administered cooperatively by the Forest Service Northwest Research Station, OSU and the Willamette National Forest.

The Andrews is a living laboratory, a forest humming with sensors, probes, data loggers, gauging stations and myriad devices to measure and log everything from temperature to stream flows, decomposition, microclimate and soil moisture and much more. The scientists have recorded the calls of birds, the movements of animals and insects, the length of the salamanders and growth of the fish, the daily water balance in individual tree trunks, the distribution of light in the canopy and even the activity of microscopic fungi in the spaces between the cells of the surface of leaves.

With 75 years of research across multiple disciplines, the Andrews is all about taking the long view, said Matt Betts, lead principal investigator for the Long Term Ecological Research site at the Andrews, and a professor of forest ecosystems and society at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Most ecological research lasts only two or three years, Betts explained. But at the Andrews, scientists have studied tree growth and death in the same stands for 52 years; examined fish populations in the same section of stream for 37 years; and measured climate and streamflow for 65 years across the forest. That’s a long baseline against which to measure and understand environmental change.

“I don’t know anywhere on the planet that has had so much long-term data,” Betts said. “And now it has had a major fire, so I think it is unprecedented, some of the findings that will be coming out.”

“Sadness and loss”

The Lookout fire is still burning. It will probably burn until it snows — and could even smolder in the earth to reignite next spring. Hundreds of firefighters have cut fire lines in the forest, felled trees, dumped water and fire retardant by helicopter and plane, and installed sprinklers to protect vulnerable gauging stations and the forest headquarters complex.

The firefighting itself will have an impact on the forest, about 40% of which is old growth never commercially harvested, including cedars, hemlocks and Douglas firs, including many 300, 500 and a few even 700 years old. Soaked in 84 inches of rainfall a year on average, the forest grows trees draped in moss and lichen and alive with animals, such as the red tree voles that live out their entire lives in the canopy. The tallest known tree at the Andrews is a Douglas fir that towers 306 feet — taller than the Statue of Liberty.

The Lookout Creek old-growth trail at the Andrews is a treasure sought by hikers from all over. The creek purls cold and fast through gigantic trees, their buttressed trunks shaggy with age, and their tops snaggletoothed from centuries of storms. Ferns and moss are soft as a mattress, inviting a nap in the deep quiet as dead and downed logs slowly melt back into the earth.

The Andrews also is home to a rich arts and humanities program used by artists, philosophers, photographers, writers and more, in residencies and gatherings that center the forest as a wellspring for ideas and creativity.

The effects of the fire will vary across the landscape, as it burns hotter in some places than others. Even after the most severe burn, most trees will still be there in one form or another. Mark Harmon, professor emeritus in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at OSU, is the lead author of a paper published last year in which researchers found even in high severity megafires in the Sierra Nevada in California, only 0.1 to 3.2% of the forest actually went up in smoke. That is because large trees with low combustion rates comprised the majority of the forest, and high severity patches covered less than half the area burned.

Big trees don’t burn as easily because of their mass and some — such as Douglas firs — are armored when they are old and large with bark up to a foot thick. The carbon in burned trees also lasts longer than unburned trees because it resists decay.

So while people think ashes when they think fire, the Andrews will be a perfect place to study what actually happened — and what natural regeneration looks like, Harmon said.

Nonetheless, it likely will be quite a while before the forest is safe to work in again. Mark Schultz, its director, already can imagine some of the work ahead, refinding and marking research plots, replacing burned cables and destroyed instruments, clearing fallen trees and branches off trails and roads. But it’s not just the recovery he and other researchers who love this place are thinking about.

This is also a time of shock and grieving.

“There is inherently a lot of suffering,” Schultz said. “The firefighters breathing incredibly toxic smoke. Selfishly, I worry about my favorite trees, not just the trees that I climb; I wonder, are they going to be the ones that make it, are they going to be the ones that die? And obviously there are lots and lots of other organisms that are not going to make it.”

Stan Gregory, emeritus professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU, scattered the ashes of a friend and scientific colleague at the base of one of his favorite old-growth trees along the creek at the Andrews, where he studied coastal cutthroat trout for 35 years. It has been a place he always comes back to, the place that was always there.

“I think maybe people … think of scientists as cold or calculating, or they’re not attached or whatever. But that is not true,” Gregory said. “You feel a genuine sense of grief and mourning as this fire comes through. It’s a really deep sense of sadness and loss. I mean, it was a gut punch right from the beginning.”

Jerry Franklin, 87, learned and documented much of what is known today about the structure and ecological function of west-side Cascades old-growth forest ecosystems with his colleagues at the Andrews. He knows intimately the trees on Lookout Mountain, where the fire started.

“It is painful to see,” Franklin said from his home in Medford, where he retired from a celebrated career as research forester and chief plant ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, director of the Andrews, and professor at the University of Washington.

“I really wish it had waited until I died,” Franklin said of the fire. “I really would rather not have had to live through this.”

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Evacuation and what comes next

For now, Andrews scientists are operating in exile.

A greenhouse at OSU hosts thousands of Douglas fir and hemlock seedlings that were supposed to be planted this month at the Andrews as part of an experiment. Now perhaps the seedlings will be redeployed in a re-imagined experiment involving burned and unburned parts of the forest, said Posy Busby, associate professor at OSU specializing in plant microbiome ecology. But for right now, she doesn’t even know when she or her seedlings can get into the forest.

Harmon, 70, the OSU professor emeritus, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on forest decomposition. He has devoted 40 years to an experiment involving observation of the rate and process of decomposition on logs, placed at six sites at the Andrews. The study was supposed to last for 200 years. Now he is waiting at his house in Corvallis to see what is left of his research plots. Will there be six? Three? Only one? And what will be the experiment’s design now?

“It really kind of terminates the study in some ways,” he said of the fire. “But maybe it’ll lead to some other kinds of study.

“I’d like to see what’s left and what can be done.”

For a while, he obsessively checked the InciWeb map of the fire on his computer, trying to track the location of the blaze relative to his plots. He eventually stopped looking. “It was just, ‘It will burn whatever it burns and then I’ll deal with it.’”

Brooke Penaluna, research fisheries biologist at the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, is lead scientist at the Andrews. When the fire broke out, her days and nights were filled with first making sure everyone got out of the forest safely. Then it was time to put together a team from Corvallis to salvage valuables from the evacuated headquarters and residences. She took a moment for a walk on the Discovery Trail near the headquarters office, used and beloved by so many researchers, educators and the public.

“It felt heavy, I felt like I was carrying the weight of everybody who had ever done research there before, knowing they couldn’t go and say goodbye,” Penaluna said, “It was just that feeling of people’s legacy.”

Original artwork, microscopes and other equipment, precious original data only on paper, the signed books in the Andrews’ library — those were obvious picks to get packed in the vans, Penaluna said, as firefighting helicopters whomp-whomped overhead.

The taxidermy spotted owls were among the last to go. First the good ones, and then finally, in the last bit of space in the vans, the ones that were less than perfect. They, along with the files, the artwork, the two-way radios and all the rest are now in a warehouse.

To keep them clean, the owls wear black trash bags placed carefully over their heads. They are owls in exile, from a forest where some of the last habitat of their critically endangered species is burning.