Witnesses watch the Eagle Creek fire from the Columbia River Gorge two days into the fire. Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Erin Minor

During Labor Day weekend 2017, Eagle Creek Trail was busy. Located in the Columbia River Gorge just outside of Portland, Oregon, this scenic area is a popular hiking destination. The trail bustled with families hiking to the Punchbowl Falls swimming area about 2 miles from the trailhead. Unfortunately, these hikers had no idea that their afternoon would be interrupted by a 15-year-old boy setting off fireworks, starting a fire that would ravage this stretch of forest for the next three months. The fire started about halfway up the trail and trapped more than 150 hikers, who were forced to stay in place overnight. In the following days, westward winds blew ash on Portland, causing school closures and disrupting traffic along the highway and the river. By the time authorities deemed the fire contained three months later, almost 50,000 acres of forest had burned. The U.S. Forest Service has announced that many of these trails will remain closed until late 2024 because damage to soil composition after a forest fire creates instability that causes rock slides.  

When I visited Eagle Creek for the first time in January 2021, the trail I hiked had only been reopened to the public for about a week and a half. Driving through the Columbia River Gorge, it became clear to me that this ecosystem was very different from any I’d seen before. Most of the trees were conifers, their thick trunks and pointed tops covering the hills as far as the eye could see. Along the trail, the understory was thick with ferns that made me feel like I’d stepped into Jurassic Park. Fog hung low in the air and the roar of the creek only 10 feet below overwhelmed the chatter of the many visitors we passed. As we slid on the muddied trail, walls of rock arose on the left-hand side – slick and covered with moss. Almost immediately, we came across a large fallen tree — a Douglas fir — blocking the trail and putting us face to face with one of the casualties of the 2017 fire.

A Douglas-fir cone displaying the “mouse tail” bracts. Credit: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

The Douglas fir is a common conifer species in the Pacific Northwest and is resilient to fire. Indigenous cultures from the area have folk stories about the hardiness of these trees. As a wildfire moves through the forest, the mice living in the forest look for a place to hide. They run to the maple tree and the red cedar tree for help, but neither can protect the mice from the fire. Finally, they get to a Douglas fir, which tells them to use its fire-resistant bark to run up the tree and hide inside its cones. This story serves two purposes. In one way, it’s a fun tree identification tool. Douglas fir cones have three-pronged bracts (a different kind of scale that only some types of conifers have) that protrude between the scales, resembling a mouse’s tail and legs sticking out. The story also exemplifies the Douglas fir’s fire resilience — something that has served it well for centuries both before and after the arrival of settlers during the westward expansion.

Standing on that trailhead on a misty gray winter afternoon, this story and the recent damage to this landscape were fresh on my mind. The trail was busy and covered in the sloppy kind of mud caused by hundreds of feet trudging through wet dirt for the first time in three and a half years. While the damage from the fire was clearly visible in the bare tree stumps and fallen logs, the beauty of this little landscape still took my breath away. Those fire scars seemed to fit in, with moss growing over charred logs like they’d been there all along. I wondered if they had. I wondered what this trail had looked like four years ago, before the most recent fire, but also wondered what it had looked like 300 years ago, when this path didn’t exist. With the threat of climate change lurking in the back of my mind, I was heartened by the longevity of the fir trees. Standing so massive and all-encompassing, the Douglas firs looming over me seemed eternal survivors of whatever the Anthropocene had thrown at them.

Found throughout the Cascades Mountain range from Northern California to British Columbia, Douglas firs generally live anywhere from 400 to 1,000 years and are the second-tallest conifer in the world, after the Redwoods, reaching average heights of 200 to 300 feet. Their large size impacts the surrounding ecosystem. Douglas firs are the primary home for the spotted owl and the red tree vole, and the seeds found in their cones are a major source of food for many small mammals, including those fabled mice that hide inside.

The bark that saved the mice in the legend is thick and cork-like. This protects the cambium — the layer of the tree directly underneath the bark where new growth occurs — from mild- and medium-intensity fires. Prior to westward expansion, a Douglas fir in the Pacific Northwest would see low-intensity fires in its area as frequently as every six years. These fires were not only low intensity but also geographically small, which scientists can determine by matching scars on the trees and the years they occurred. These temporally matching scars rarely occur in samples across different sites in Washington and Oregon, indicating that 50,000-acre fires like Eagle Creek were not the historical norm. However, around the end of the 19th century, the length of time between fires quadrupled. Without regular fires to thin out the brush, the forests became denser with more material to burn. As a result, when fires did occur, they were higher intensity. As climate change worsens in coming years, higher temperatures and drier conditions will exacerbate this problem — the drier the vegetation, the more flammable it becomes.

A fallen tree blocks the trail along Eagle Creek. Credit: Erin Minor

In the wake of a wildfire, regrowth varies with the intensity of the fire. If the fire wasn’t strong enough to damage the highest canopy layer of trees in an area, the new growth after the fire will mostly contain trees that grow well in shaded areas, like the western hemlock. On the other hand, extensive fire damage to the forest canopy opens room for direct sunlight on the forest floor, allowing Douglas fir seedlings to take root and become the dominant tree species in that area. Throughout their lifetime, the thick bark on the Douglas firs along the Pacific Coast can bear the scars from as many as 10 fires.

On my hike, those bark scars were visible all around me. The bark was charred black, damp to the touch, and left inky black residue on my fingers where I touched it. Some were stumps, ranging from two to seventy-five feet tall, their tops splintered off like broken toothpicks stuck in the ground. Some still stood tall but with all the needles singed off, looking naked in a way that conifers, which normally keep their needles all year, rarely do. Yet most were charred only at eye level, greeting me with a beautiful full canopy above my head. Across the creek, hills rolled into the distance with gray patches of bare trees peeking out through the sea of evergreen. While I was heartened by the forest’s tenacity, I had to wonder how these trees would endure the monster heatwaves that rising temperatures will bring in the next century.

I soon had my answer. Just six months after my first visit to Eagle Creek, in June 2021 the Pacific Northwest was hit by a heat dome — a high-pressure system trapping hot air across the region. This led to record high temperatures ranging up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of the conifers in the area, including the coastal Douglas fir, struggled mightily in this heat. The Pacific Northwest has wet winters and dry summers, and most conifers in the area have a root system that allows them to draw moisture from the ground during the summers. This helps them with drought, but not high temperatures. All over the Pacific Northwest, Douglas firs showed signs of scorching: Their needles turned orange, visible across stretches of forest from aerial photos. Foliage scorching happens when high heat or drought damages the process through which water vapor is absorbed and transported throughout the tree. One study has demonstrated conclusively that it was high temperatures, not drought, that caused this ghastly scorching — similar to scarring from the extreme heat of a wildfire’s flames.

The impacts of extreme temperatures were visible when I returned to Eagle Creek a year later, in July 2022. The increasing heat of the Pacific Northwest summer was palpable, even for a Midwesterner used to heat and humidity. The trail was sunny, with clear blue skies showing off the distant rolling hills that were previously hidden by the low-hanging fog that seems to permanently cover the forest all winter. We hiked the 2 miles to Punchbowl Falls, the same way those 150 hikers did five years earlier before getting trapped by the fire. Standing on the rocky shore of the river with my toes in the icy water, I thought of the families who’d been there doing the same thing, not knowing a reckless teenager would extend their short nature walk into a tense, sleepless night in a fire zone. Looking at my own family wading into the river current, a chill ran down my spine as I imagined how easily the same thing could happen to us.

The semester just before my initial visit to Eagle Creek, I’d taken an atmospheric sciences class on climate change. I was committed to learning how to interpret the reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with its dire projections. It was difficult to see the reality of the future of our planet laid out in hard science. Confronted by the data on climate change, I felt pessimistic.

But standing on that muddy trail, the famous fir trees told a story of resiliency I had forgotten was possible. Yes, the scars of the fire were everywhere: conifers with needles missing from their limbs, fallen trees across the trail and in the distance, charred tree trunks lining the trail. But also, there was so much greenery: in the moss-covered trunks, the ferns in the undergrowth, and the green conifer needles above our heads. There was so much life: the little wildflowers peeking through the ferns, a squirrel scurrying up a tree, and the salamander on a rock next to the trail. The cycle of life continues both because of and in spite of the damage from our human footprint on the world.

Credit: Erin Minor

About the Author …

Erin Minor is Q Magazine’s Volume 6 Student Editor. From Urbana, Ill., she is a senior double-majoring in Political Science and Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability. She is pursuing the Certificate in Environmental Writing and is a Communications Intern with iSEE.

This piece was written for ESE 498, the CEW capstone course, in Spring 2022.