The Complexity of Wildfire

September 05, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Huge shoutout to the amazing firefighters and other emergency responders dealing with this crazy fire season - you guys rock.


PeacockPeacockPonytail Falls (aka Upper Horsetail Falls), Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, United States

Shortly before making the thunderous plunge over Horsetail Falls, Horsetail Creek is shot through a narrow crack and exploded out into a large pool in front of a deep recess, which allows a trail to pass behind the falls. This is one of the more favored waterfalls in Oregon for professional photographers, mainly for pictures looking out from behind the falls. Though the falls are only about 1/3 mile from the trailhead, the trail is steep, gaining about 250 feet in roughly 1/3 mile, hence the moderate difficulty rating.

With a drop of around 90 feet, this isn't one of the largest waterfalls in the area by far, but it offers some of the best vantage points for photographers!


          Before moving to Oregon, I gave very little thought to wildfires. They were an abstract concept to me, just another natural disaster that, though sad, didn't affect me in my Wisconsin bubble. I only ever had to worry about the occasional tornado and flash-flood. I now live smack-dab in the middle of a record-setting wildfire season for the Pacific Northwest.

          As I write this, a thick haze is covering Ashland, as it has been for the entire summer and the smell of smoke comes and goes. Air quality hovers between unhealthy and hazardous every hour of the day and the warnings to limit outdoor activity are endless. Fortunately, there are no fires that present an immediate threat to Ashland -so far-. Of the hundreds of separate wildfires burning in the state, only about a fourth of them have been naturally ignited by lightning. The other three-fourths of the fires were caused by a human-related activity; campfires, fireworks, cigarette butts, innocent sparks from any number of sources. These fire vary in size, the largest of which (the Chetco Bar fire near Brookings) has been burning for two months and had grown to over a 167,000 acres (Oregon Wildfire Info Source). 

          I struggle with my feelings towards these fires. On one hand, I know, logistically, that wildfires are needed for the perseverance of a healthy environment. They clear out the deadwood, fertilize the soil, and allow new growth to take its place, revitalizing the ecosystem. In a scant few years, the forest is full of life again. They're designed to be burned.

          But not like this.

          These forests need time to regrow after a fire, but when human activity causes these fires to come back year-after-year, they never have a chance to recuperate. On the flip side of that, when people suppress natural fires that occur near human settlement, debris (that is the deadwood and readily flammable brush in the woods) builds up to unprecedented levels and when a fire inevitably does occur, it burns hotter, longer, and bigger. 

          When you consider our changing climate, which is causing hotter temperatures, less moisture, and unpredictable winds in the Pacific Northwest, it's like throwing lighter fluid on the flames. The fires have become even more dangerous not only to the landscape and the towns around them but to the brave firefighters that are risking their lives on the fire-line. The fires are bigger and the seasons are longer than ever and resources are not matching up. (Are Massive Fires the New Normal?)

          The fires this year seem to be centered around every single one of my favorite natural spots. They are blazing in Brookings, near Crater Lake, around the waterfalls of the Umpqua National Forest, all around the Willamette, and most recently, along the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Some of these fires are natural, many of them are not, but they're all burning longer and hotter than they should be because of the climate. These places will recover, but they will be scarred for decades to come. 

          My thoughts never stray far from the people and animals affected by these disasters, but I can't and won't pretend like the landscape doesn't get the same attention. I grieve for these areas because they are Oregon to me and many others. They can't be rebuilt or replaced. There is no backup waiting to take their place. They are not going through their natural cycle because we've already interfered with it.

          Wildfires are a complex issue and I won't pretend to know the intricacies of it, but I do know enough to say that the environment cannot sustain itself the way things are now. We need to take fuel reduction and controlled burns seriously. We need to take fire danger warnings seriously and abide by whatever fire bans are in place. We need to take climate change seriously because it isn't just a threat to polar bears, it's a threat to all of us. 


Above Photo: Ponytail Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. (May 27, 2017) - Photo taken with Canon EOS 80D, f/13 @ 10 mm, 2.5s, ISO 100, No Flash 

This waterfall has been completely consumed by the Eagle Creek Fire (10,000 Acres - 0% contained - Expected to grow - Cause: Fireworks).


ProxyProxyLower Proxy Falls, Willamette National Forest, Oregon, United States.

Autumn has finally come to Oregon and naturally I had to pair it with a waterfall!

Proxy Falls is one of the most frequently photographed waterfalls in Oregon and is certainly among the most photogenic waterfalls in the entire country. Fed by springs on the shoulder of North Sister, Proxy Creek breaks over a wall of columnar basalt liberally marinated in mosses, veiling 226 feet in two streams. One of the most striking characteristics of the falls is that the two primary viewpoints provide surprisingly different perspectives of the falls. From the end of the trail, the falls are viewed through a natural channel in the thick surrounding forest and appear as a fall widening mid-way down, and then narrowing slightly at the bottom. From the base of the falls, however, the top looks much more constricted and the base appears much wider than it does from further back.

Above Photo: Lower Proxy Falls, Willamette National Forest, Oregon. (October 23, 2017) - Photo taken with Canon EOS 60D, f/22 @ 10 mm, 1/2s, ISO 100, No Flash

This waterfall is within two miles of the active Nash Fire (4,862 Acres - Expected to grow - Cause: Lightning). 


Northwest TropicsNorthwest TropicsNorth Umpqua River, Clearwater, Oregon, United States.

The hike to this magical falls, named "Toketee" (a name meaning "pretty") Falls is just under a mile and takes you through old-growth forests filled with Douglas-fir, western red cedar, big leaf maple, and Pacific Yew and follows the North Umpqua River.

Toketee Falls is one of the most famous in Oregon, renowned far and wide for the graceful columnar basalt formation framing the two-stepped falls. The two tiers of this waterfall equal out to a 113 foot drop into the pool below.

With some careful maneuvering it is possible to get down to the base of the falls. The trail is worn down from repeated use but it is very steep and can be very dangerous if attempted while too wet or too dry. As of June 2016 there is a rope someone left along the steepest part to help guide you up and down, but don't count on it being there if you absolutely plan on heading to the bottom. Bring your own just in case!

Above Photo: Toketee Fall, Umpqua National Forest, Oregon. (June 3, 2016) - Photo taken with Canon EOS 60D, f/22 @ 23 mm, 1/3s, ISO 100, No Flash

This Waterfall is slowly being surrounded by the Umpqua North Complex, a series of fourteen active wildfires (29,544 Acres - 23% perimeter contained - Expected to grow - Cause: Unknown).


Flowing MagicFlowing MagicFairy Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, United States

Wahkeena Creek cascades through a deep gorge, laced with mosses and ferns stretching 200 feet upwards. Fairy Falls occurs along a small spring fed branch of Wahkeena Creek as it veils over a 20 foot wall in a supremely attractive fashion. It isn't hard to imagine how this waterfall earned its name.


Above Photo: Fairy Fall, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. (May 27, 2017) - Photo taken with Canon EOS 80D, f/22 @ 10 mm, 6s, ISO 100, No Flash

This waterfall will be completely consumed by the Eagle Creek Fire by the end of the day (10,000 Acres - 0% contained - Expected to grow - Cause: Fireworks).


Famous SpillFamous SpillMultnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, United States.

According to some Native American lore, Multnomah Falls was created to win the heart of a young princess who wanted a hidden place to bathe.

The first white men to see Multnomah Falls were those among the Lewis and Clark expedition as they floated down the Columbia River. It can be safely assumed that they were as stunned by the 611-foot waterfall then as we are today.

This waterfall is the most visited National Recreation site in the Pacific Northwest with more than two million visitors annually. As one of the few waterfalls in the area fed by a natural spring as well as snowmelt, its flow doesn't decrease dramatically in the summer, making it an enjoyable sight year-round. That combined with the minimal effort it takes to see it (you can see the top tier from the highway) and its proximity to Portland makes this a popular tourist destination! To best avoid the crowds I'd recommend seeing it during the off-season from late autumn to early spring and in the early morning or evening.


Above Photo: Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. (March 23, 2017) - Photo taken with Canon EOS 80D, f/25 @ 13 mm, 4s, ISO 100, No Flash

This historic waterfall is being threatened by the Eagle Creek Fire (10,000 Acres - 0% contained - Expected to grow - Cause: Fireworks).


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