This State is on Fire

(Note: please read the title like the Alicia Keys song, “This Girl is on Fire”)

The sky during fire season

I don’t know why it is, but for whatever reason during fire season in Oregon the whole world becomes a bit surreal. The sky goes dark with smoke, the sun stares down at you in the form of a hazy red eye, and the whole population of Oregon struggles to catch their breath. To someone who had never experienced a fire season before (let alone known that it even existed), it’s like living on an alien planet–one where you’ve got to remember to roll your windows up, or else deal with the thin layer of soot that will inevitably coat every surface in your car. Since my last blog post, fire season had become bad, to say the least. Half a million acres burned in Oregon, and tons of people were forced to evacuate their homes, or simply left in order to escape the smoke. Most of my office was up and ready to help the district in any way possible–some were out fighting the fires firsthand, others worked behind the scenes to coordinate teams and create rehabilitation plans. For a few weeks, the office felt a bit like a ghost town. Luckily, we’ve experienced rain in the past few days, and it seems like fire season may finally be coming to an end.

The Horse Prairie Fire was one of the many fires blanketing Oregon in the past month that required the fire-expertise of the Roseburg BLM staff. Being among the few people in our office who didn’t yet have a “red card” (AKA the wildland firefighter certification), Mira and I weren’t able to be out near the actual fire; however, once the fire was contained and mop-up was well underway, we were granted the opportunity to shadow some of our coworkers as they drove across the charred landscape and worked together to create a rehabilitation plan. One thing that struck me about this experience was the intense amount of collaboration required for this project: botanists, geologists, hydrologists, and wildlife biologists alike united to plan the long process of restoring over 16,000 acres of land to its previous state. So many different views and things to consider! 

BLMers examining the landscape in the stylish uniform of wildland firefighters

An area that experienced more of the intense burning.

Somehow, the past month has felt like a rush to me. As the summer season has wound down, we’ve been working botany odd-jobs: flagging Kincaid’s lupine, mapping invasive species, and cleaning seeds. Intermixed with that, we’ve been shadowing a variety of different people in the office.

For instance, a couple weeks ago we helped the fish biologists with snorkel surveys. Our job was, essentially, to follow the biologists as we walked up stream and record data on the numbers of fish in each pool. As we worked our way upstream, we stopped at any pool that was greater than 0.4m in depth and longer than it was wide. The biologists then snorkeled the length of the pool (a truly impressive feat considering the depth and relatively high amount of things obstructing the stream), counting the numbers of coho and steelhead along the way. 

If you look closely, you can see a fish biologist

Why conduct these surveys, you may ask? Little Wolf Creek (where we had been recording data) was the recent site of a restoration project aimed at increasing spawning rates of steelhead and coho. Once upon a time, creeks like Little Wolf were completely dredged of obstructions (i.e., logs and boulders). The reason that this dramatic management practice was twofold: not only did this make it easier to float logs from timber harvest downstream, but it was also thought that anadromous fish species would prosper in “clean” streambeds, as it would allow them to migrate unimpeded. Years later, scientists discovered that this was, in fact, a horrible management practice for fish populations, which had been suffering over the past decades. It turned out that fish actually preferred more heavily obstructed streams, which provided more opportunity for the formation of pools with gravel streambeds necessary for spawning, more woody debris to feed the insects that fish preyed upon, and slowed the strong currents that would send young fish spiralling downstream. To make matters worse, without the trees and boulders that had once held them in place, streambanks were eroding and streambeds were washing away, exposing large swathes of bedrock that lay below. 

An example of unhealthy streambed–note how the bedrock is exposed

Now that overall knowledge of fish ecology has improved, biologists are taking steps to restore streams by “adding character” back into the streams. The process of restoring streams is long–though it’s relatively easy to add logs and boulders to a stream, it can take years for the streambed to build up–but progress is being made, step by step. It’s truly admirable.

I could talk at length about the variety of things I’ve learned from shadowing our awesome coworkers–but I’ll stop myself before this blog post starts to become too tedious. Instead, I’ll gift you guys with pictures of the cool fungus and lichen that I saw. 

Possibly Western Varnished Conk? I think it looks like bread.

Cute red lichen growing among moss


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