It’s not just that Oregon’s wildfires burned an area the size of Rhode Island this summer.
Yes, the numbers are staggering: 1,903 fires, 1,060 square miles burned, $340 million spent so far on firefighting costs.
Yet, somehow, those numbers fail to capture the real loss.
The flames tore into beloved places across the state, torching mountains and forests Oregonians traditionally pilgrimage to each summer and fall, including the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters.
Now that heavy rains and even snow have calmed the flames, Oregonians are wondering what’s become of their favorite places.
Fire teams are just beginning to assess damage and plan what comes next. In the coming weeks, they'll survey the burned areas and determine when it's safe enough to reopen them.
Here'san early look at what the wildfires of 2017 wrought.
How badly did the Whitewater Fire torch Mount Jefferson Wilderness?
Wildfire: Whitewater Fire, 11,500 acres
Location: Mount Jefferson Wilderness, east of Detroit
When will it reopen? Spring and summer of 2018
The first major wildfire of the season ignited in the heart of one of Oregon’s most beloved hiking and backpacking areas.
The Whitewater Fire started when a lightning-stuck tree ignited a fire above Whitewater Creek on Sentinel Hills.
The fire grew to 11,500 acres, but what will the long-term damage be?
The good news is that Jefferson Park, a beloved alpine meadow of lakes and meadow, appears mostly unscathed. There have been small spot fires, but no widespread burning in the trees and meadows.
"The fire came right to the edge of Jefferson Park and then kind of got stuck on the ridge," said Marcus Kaufmann, public information officer on the fire, earlier this summer.
The same could not be said for Whitewater Trail, the quickest and most popular pathway into Jeff Park. The forest there, much of it old-growth, will likely be burned, blackened and home to many dead snags, district ranger Grady McMahan said.
That will likely make the hike to Jefferson Park a different experience.
Other highly impacted areas include segments of the Pacific Crest Trail and Woodpecker Trail. The fire also burned the forest surrounding Triangulation Peak, a popular hiking destination known for views of Oregon’s second-tallest mountain.
Work by firefighters stopped the blaze from spreading to the popular Pamelia Lake recreation area or farther south to Marion Lake.
The wilderness trails, which have been closed since the fire ignited, are likely to remain closed until spring to allow winter storms to bring down dead snags that could be a danger.
More on Whitewater Fire:
Eagle Creek Fire will keep many Columbia Gorge trails closed until spring 2018
Wildfire: Eagle Creek Fire, 49,000 acres
Location: Columbia River Gorge, east of Portland
When likely to reopen: spring of 2018
The long-term damage is difficult to predict in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire.
In the short term, more than 100 trails, campsites and parks were closed in the Columbia River Gorge. Many won't reopen until spring of 2018.
It's the long-term damage, what happens in the next six months, that has land managers most worried.
Steep, fire-ravaged slopes combined with winter rains is almost certain to bring a mess of landslides, erosion, falling trees and general destruction to popular trails.
In other words, while blackened forest will likely lead Portland's television news during coming weeks, it's really the weather that will shape the future of recreation in the Gorge.
“First, we have to take care of the fire, but then it actually gets a little more complicated,” said Rachel Pawlitz, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. “There’s winter storms, tree removal, landslides, snowslides and spring rain. It’s going to be one thing after another.”
There are obvious places that will be highly impacted, Pawlitz said, especially Eagle Creek Trail, Horsetail Falls, Larch Mountain Trail and Angel’s Rest Trail.
Those with the steepest terrain are the most likely to face long-term damage, Pawlitz said.
The loss of moss and vegetation will mean countless boulders and trees will no longer be stable.
There were success stories, of course, including the effort to save Multnomah Falls Lodge. And, many of the trails experienced low-intensity fire that burned undergrowth but left trees intact.
It's a unique opportunity to watch nature's rebirth in action, Pawlitz said.
“To a naturalist it’s going to be fascinating,” she said.
“There’s going to be patches of blackened forest, and places where there is brown vegetation but the trees are still standing. It’s going to bring a lot of problems, but also a lot of ecological benefits. There will be more plant diversity in the long run, so that's something.”
Kalmiopsis Wilderness torched for second time, but many beloved spots unharmed
Wildfire: Chetco Bar Fire, 190,000 acres
Located: Southwest Oregon, between Brookings and Cave Junction
When will it reopen: Some areas open now, others not until spring 2018
You have to feel bad a little bad for the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
The third-largest wilderness area in Oregon was once home to lush forest that shaded some of Oregon’s wildest and most pristine rivers.
But in 2002, the Biscuit Fire torched this wilderness to its bones. One of the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s history burned 500,000 acres and left a graveyard of dead trees throughout the rugged mountains of the Kalmiopsis.
This year brought a small-scale sequel to 2002. The Chetco Bar Fire rose to become Oregon’s largest wildfire at just less than 200,000 acres.
The fire burned in much of the scar left by Biscuit, but it also burned into new areas on the wilderness’ west side.
“It did burn a lot of forest that didn’t get burned by Biscuit, but this time it was more of a mosaic,” said Mitch Ward, Chetco Bar Fire public information officer. “The fire burned hottest on the ridges as opposed to the lower drainage areas, where it mostly burned undergrowth.”
There were plenty of positive stories to come from the Chetco Bar aftermath, including the survival of Snow Camp Lookout.
A mountaintop cabin open for rental to the public, Snow Camp was burned to the ground by the Biscuit Fire in 2002.
A group of devoted locals rebuilt the lookout and reopened it two years later.
All that work looked jeopardized this summer as the Chetco Bar roared toward the lookout once again. But firefighters wrapped the cabin in fire-retardant materials and, although the fire blazed over the mountain, the lookout escaped unscathed, officials said.
The fire also bypassed a truly unique historical spot called Japanese Bomb Site Trail — a site where in 1942 the Japanese dropped an incendiary bomb meant to start a wildfire on the Oregon Coast.
In that case, the wildfire fizzled and no real damage occurred.
The Chetco Bar Fire also never reached popular spots such as Vulcan Lake, Loeb State Park and Redwood Nature Loop.
But the fire’s aftermath will leave a lot of work for trail crews tasked with keeping the wilderness’ trail systems open.
After the Biscuit Fire, the wilderness’ expansive trail system virtually disappeared into the mass of falling snags and new growth.
It took a nonprofit group, the Siskiyou Mountain Club, to reopen many of the area’s trails. Now, it looks as though they’ll have a lot more work.
“Areas that hadn’t burned previously but burned severely in the Chetco Bar Fire will sustain the most long-term damage,” Siskiyou Mountain Club executive director Gabe Howe said.
“For areas that burned hot in 2002, we'll see an immediate fall out of snags that burned again. But that damage will happen pretty quick.”
The Kalmiopsis remains one of the most interesting and solitude-filled places to backpack in Oregon. But it will likely need another big effort to remain accessible, Howe said.
Milli Fire burns Three Sisters Wilderness, will keep some trails closed multiple years
Fire: Milli Fire, 24,000 acres.
Location: Central Oregon near Sisters
When will it reopen: Spring of 2018 for many trails and campgrounds, but some trails to remain closed indefinitely
The Milli Fire was one of the more dramatic wildfires of the season, as it roared within a few miles of Sisters, caused multiple evacuations and closed McKenzie Pass Highway 242.
Impact from the 24,000-acre blaze on recreation will be a mixed bag, officials said.
The fire burned hottest around Black Crater Trail, a hike with sweeping views of the Central Cascades. Milli did enough damage to the trail that Forest Service officials are planning to close the trail for an extended period, Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman Jean Nelson-Dean said.
“There will be many snags, and we’re not going to bring those out because it’s a wilderness area,” Nelson-Dean said. “We’re going to let Mother Nature take its course and look to reopen it when it’s safe for public travel. That could take a few years."
Other impacts centered on Lava Camp Lake Campground and Trailhead.
Due to fire impact, officials are planning to close four of 11 campsites, but the site will reopen next season.
It’s more of a mixed bag on the fire’s namesake trail, the Millican Crater Trail, and Whychus River Trail, outside the wilderness near Sisters. Both trails were moderately impacted by the fire and include a mix of high- and low-intensity burns.
On the more positive side, the fire burned at low intensity around the lakes basins of Matthieu and Yapoh, which sustained little damage, Nelson-Dean said.
“All the lakes basins are looking pretty good,” she said.
Other good news was that damage feared by the rise of the Nash Fire didn’t come to pass.
The 6,000-acre fire threatened the South Sister area and Sisters Mirror Lake, but ultimately stopped before it entered one of the most popular areas in the wilderness, Nelson-Dean said.
Surrounded by wildfire, Crater Lake remains open but multiple trails damaged
Fires: Blanket Creek, 33,322; Spruce Lake, 15,826 acres
Location: Crater Lake National Park
When will it reopen? Crater Lake National Park remains open, but some trails won't reopen until spring 2018
There was a lot of smoke and even some visible fire at Crater Lake National Park this summer.
Oregon’s only national park was surrounded to the south and west by the Blanket Creek and Spruce Lake fires, which both caused trouble this summer.
In addition to smoke that often made viewing the lake impossible, the fires temporarily closed West Rim Drive, the park’s north entrance and brought evacuation warnings to the campground and cabins at Mazama Village.
Even so, the park was able to stay open all summer, and the damage appears centered on the park's trails.
Nine trails have been impacted by the fire and remain closed.
Of those, there was intense and damaging fire on the Pacific Crest Trail, Union Peak Trail, Stewart Falls, Bald Crater Loop and Pumice Flat trails. They will remain closed until next spring and summer.
Watchman Peak Trail, on Crater Lake's Rim, remains closed but hasn't been burned.
Fire keeps North Umpqua River closed, damages iconic trail system
Fire: Umpqua North Complex, 44,000 acres
Location: Southern Cascade Foothills, east of Roseburg
When will it reopen? State Highway 138 has reopened, but trails and river remained close for foreseeable future
The North Umpqua River corridor is one of the best hiking, mountain biking and rafting destinations in Oregon, but this summer it was hammered by multiple wildfires.
The Umpqua North Complex burned 43,000 acres along the river east of Roseburg and closed highways, numerous trails and campgrounds along with the river itself.
State Highway 138 reopened last week, but teams are just beginning to assess damage from fires that burned right down to the river's edge.
For the moment, most closures on the river and trails remain in place.
Vern Shumway, recreation program manager for Umpqua National Forest, did an assessment on the North Umpqua Trail burned by the Fall Creek Fire.
“Some areas looked great and were minimally impacted, while others were severely burned — there were places where so many trees fell that you can't even see the trail," he said. “There were also areas where the vegetation burned off completely and the outer edge of the trial is falling off.”
Shumway said long stretches of boardwalk trail were burned. He said the trail would remain at high risk for landslides this winter, likely keeping it closed through the winter and into next spring.
“We’ll work on getting things storm-proofed before winter to try and minimize damage,” he said. “Then we’d start major repairs on the trail next summer.”
The river has reopened to anglers, but remains closed to rafters and kayakers upstream of Susan Creek — the river’s most popular areas. That will likely remain the case as numerous dead trees continue to fall into the narrow and rapid-filled section of river.
“There are a number of logs blocking the main channel, and we’re expecting a lot more to come down as the big winter storms pass through,” Shumway said. “We’re committed to opening the river as soon as it’s safe, but that will really depend on the weather.”
The river closure has hurt recreation outfitters, such as North Umpqua Outfitters in Glide, but they also found work ferrying firefighters down the river this summer.
The extent of damage to other popular recreation areas, such as Twin Lakes or Illahee Rock Lookouts, is unclear but they’ll be assessed in coming weeks.
Separation Fire burns near iconic lakes, Obsidian Trail, near McKenzie Pass
Fire: Horse Creek Complex, 33,000 acres
Location: Central Cascade Mountains, near McKenzie Bridge
When will it reopen: McKenzie Pass Highway 242 likely closed for the season, other areas undetermined
The six wildfires of the Horse Creek Complex might not have captured statewide attention, but they took a major toll on the upper McKenzie River east of Eugene.
The collective fires spurred evacuations in McKenzie Bridge and shut down large swaths of the Three Sisters Wilderness, particularly the Separation Fire, which grew to 18,000 acres.
One result of the fire is that McKenzie Pass Highway 242 will likely remain closed for the season. The highway closes each winter with the arrival of snow, and many downed trees still need to be removed.
The fires threatened many popular hiking and backpacking areas, beginning with Obsidian Trail, a place where a permit is required to enter. Other popular spots within near the fire's reach included Linton Lake and Scott Lake.
Fire officials said they haven't been able to get eyeballs on the Obsidian area yet — snowfall has become a complicating factor. They said much of the area burned with low-intensity, but they couldn't say the impact the fire had on the area's trails.
The same was true for French Pete Trail and campground, which was burned by the Rebel Fire.
"We've heard those fires burned with low-intensity, but we just don't know at this point," said Trish Wilson, McKenzie River district ranger.
Fire teams had more tangible news on Boy Scout Camp Malakwa, where firefighters were able to save structures from flames. They also had success in preserving Foley Hot Springs, south of McKenzie Bridge.
Fall Creek swimming holes, trails still closed by Jones Fire
Wildfire: Jones Fire, 10,000 acres
Location: Cascade Foothills, east of Eugene
When will it reopen? Unknown
The forested trails and campgrounds along this idyllic creek northeast of Eugene have been impacted since early this summer by the Jones Fire.
Known for shady forest and summer swimming holes — along with the 14-mile Fall Creek National Recreation Trail — the area has been burned by both low- and high- intensity fire, officials said.
Paul Galloway, public information officer on the Jones Fire, said the fire has brought a mixture of blackened trees and less impactful burning to the area along Fall Creek.
The fire jumped the creek earlier this summer and burned on both sides of the creek, near Fall Creek and Puma campgrounds.
“There are plenty of areas with nice under-burning, where the trees are still standing and green,” he said. “There are also some downed trees and more impacted areas.
Because the fire remains fairly active, officials said, it's unclear when the area will reopen. The Fall Creek area is typically open to recreation all year.
Rogue-Umpqua Divide, popular for hunting and backpacking, hit by two wildfires
Wildfire: Broken Lookout 18,781 acres; Pup 7,524 acres
Location: Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness, west of Crater Lake National Park
When will it reopen? Unknown
The Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness is best known as a backpacking and hunting destination in Southern Oregon.
Two fires burning in the area have impacted some of the trails, and have closed access to hunters, but they haven’t burned some of the area’s most popular spots.
Three mountain lakes, Buckeye, Cliff and Fish, have not been burned so far, although they are just west of the Pup Fire.
The fires have burned in the area surrounding two lookout towers — Abbott Butte and Hershberger Mountain. Those lookouts also appear to be safe, officials said.
Lauren Maloney, public information officer working both fires, said the fires had burned with a mixed intensity. Teams will assess damage in the future, but haven’t yet.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for nine years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
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