As we hiked through the young forest I was pondering the fiery fate of the old forest.
I remembered the days when a smoke plume towered over the Elkhorns, nearly as tall as a thunderhead, the afternoons acrid and the setting sun as red as arterial blood.
It was hot the day we walked the Peavy Trail, in the valley of the North Fork of the John Day River southwest of Anthony Lakes.
July 11 was in fact the hottest day so far in 2020. The temperature topped out at 101 at the Baker City Airport.
It was on much the same sort of day, just shy of 24 years earlier, that the old forest began what was in effect a cremation, one that would extend over the better part of a week.
On Aug. 8, 1996, a blaze which had been relatively placid since it was sparked by lightning 9 days earlier began to feed on the combination of heat, kiln-like humidity and a gusty northwest wind as though it were a Saturn 5 guzzling rocket fuel.
The Sloans Ridge fire incinerated almost every tree on about 1,500 acres that day, when the temperature hit 96 at the Baker City Airport.
Two days after that it was 104 degrees.
And the fire continued to surge south, reaching the North Fork’s headwaters in the seeps and springs below the granitic crest of the Elkhorns where both the John Day and the Powder rivers begin.
The blaze had blackened 4,200 acres of forest by the evening of Aug. 11.
And 9,000 acres by Aug. 12.
Before heavy rain on Aug. 13 and 14 helped firefighters subdue the Sloans Ridge fire, it had spread across about 10,500 acres.
The fire generated about as much controversy as it did smoke.
Officials from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest acknowledged that fire crews almost certainly could have doused the blaze soon after the lightning bolt ignited it.
But Bob Richmond, then the Wallowa-Whitman’s supervisor, heeded the advice of the forest’s fire managers and decided instead to let the blaze burn.
The goal — and it’s one the Wallowa-Whitman continues to pursue in the Eagle Cap Wilderness — was to allow naturally sparked fires to play their historic role in wilderness areas.
The Sloans Ridge fire started in the 13,700-acre Baldy unit of the North Fork John Day Wilderness, designated by Congress in 1984.
Wallowa-Whitman officials conceded that letting fires burn is risky — particularly during midsummer and in an area such as the North Fork valley, where a pine beetle epidemic in the 1970s killed many of the lodgepole pines that grew thickly along the river.
The blaze grew much faster than officials expected, or hoped, that it would.
On Aug. 8, the day the fire became an inferno, Richmond declared Sloans Ridge a wildfire and summoned hundreds of firefighters and a fleet of air tankers and helicopters.
But this army couldn’t prevent the flames from spreading across most of the Baldy unit.
The fire also burned about 140 acres of private property.
That prompted a $1.4 million lawsuit that the Forest Service settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
I’ve hiked parts of the Peavy Trail a few times since 1996, usually accompanying Wallowa-Whitman employees who were there to study the aftermath.
The 4-mile trail, which connects to the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail at Cracker Saddle, basically bisects the burn zone.
I learned a great deal during those hikes about how fire has affected the forests of the Elkhorns over many millennia. Two Forest Service ecologists — Dave Swanson and Charlie Johnson, who died in 2007 — explained that the Sloans Ridge fire, though it besmirched the agency’s reputation, was a “natural” event in that it almost certainly mimicked many previous fires in that valley.
The ecologists told me that the forest that carpeted the upper North Fork in 1996, a dense mixture of lodgepole, tamarack, subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce, along with thickets of whitebark pine at the higher elevations, is the type of forest that, due to its elevation and heavy winter snowpack that combine to keep the ground moist, doesn’t burn often.
Lightning might spark an occasional blaze, they said, but the vast majority of those fizzled before they covered more than a couple acres.
Also, for most of the 20th century the Forest Service had endeavored to squelch those blazes as quickly as possible, a campaign memorialized by the now-defunct “10 a.m. rule.”
The idea was to try to control every fire by 10 a.m. the day after it was reported.
But rarely — the interval likely ranging between about 75 and 300 years — a certain combustible combination would coalesce.
Lightning would supply the spark.
Summer’s dry heat and a desiccating wind would invigorate the normally placid flames.
Another natural and periodic event, such as the tree-killing pine beetle infestation of the 1970s, would further prime the forest for a great burning.
Foresters call this a “stand-replacing” fire, meaning one that effectively erases the existing forest and makes way for a new one.
That’s essentially what happened starting on Aug. 8, 1996, Johnson and Swanson told me.
The sequence, from crucible to the cool green of rejuvenation, is predictable, the ecologists said.
I first saw the fire’s aftermath in the fall of 1996.
Probably the seeds of the revival, of wildflowers and conifers and grasses, had already been sown. But to me, ignorant of ecological matters, it looked like a wasteland.
The first autumn storm had drenched the Elkhorns recently and the North Fork, normally a crystal-clear sanctuary for some of Oregon’s healthier salmon and steelhead runs, looked like the chocolate river in Willy Wonka’s factory where Augustus Gloop came to a bad end.
The trees had yet to shed their scorched black bark, making for a scene dramatically different from the familiar soft forest green.
I went back to the wilderness in August 1997, the first anniversary of the week the blaze exploded.
I followed Johnson, our boots creating a brief black cloud of soot with every step, between each of the 10 areas he had designated just after the fire as “test plots.”
He had returned a year later to study each plot and see how much vegetation, and what sorts of plants, had begun to colonize the scorched earth.
I sat on a blackened log while Johnson hunkered on his haunches, cataloging huckleberry plants and heart-leaf arnica and an occasional succulent stalk of false hellebore.
He told me that in parts of the North Fork valley there had been no fire for at least 81 years, based on the ages of trees.
He theorized that although a stand-replacing fire is the most typical blaze in this area, historic fires probably didn’t often spread over the entire valley, as the Sloans Ridge fire did.
Johnson attributed the unusually large size of the 1996 fire in part to the pine beetle epidemic, as well as infestations of other bugs, including tussock moths and spruce budworms, that either kill or severely weaken trees.
Size aside, Johnson concluded that the Sloans Ridge fire was, on balance, a “natural” fire — one that probably mimicked, to a great extent, other blazes that happened in the dim, distant past.
Nine years later, with Johnson having retired, I hiked the Peavy Trail with his successor, Swanson.
On that day in July 2006, almost a decade after the fire, the valley looked much different.
The North Fork flowed crystalline again. And although the fire had killed most of the trees that once shaded the river its water, mostly rising from subterranean springs, was still sufficiently frigid to make your hand go numb in just a few seconds.
Ten years on, the lodgepole pines in particular had thrived. This was to be expected — lodgepole cones are serotinous, meaning they’re coated with a resin that melts, releasing the seeds, generally only during a fire.
Almost anywhere in the Blue Mountains where lodgepoles are common, the species, at least initially, will be the predominant tree after a significant fire. Another example of this is the area north of the Anthony Lakes Highway, where the 1960 Anthony fire, which covered about 20,000 acres, yielded today’s dense forest of lodgepoles, all about the same age and height.
In 2006 the lodgepoles that lined the Peavy Trail were about 4 feet high.
Like Johnson, Swanson considered the North Fork valley as a classroom — a place to study the rejuvenative powers of nature following a destructive, albeit natural, event.
As we hiked, Swanson pointed to an aspen seedling, scarcely more than a foot tall.
There were no other aspens within sight — indeed, these deciduous trees with the leaves that quiver in the gentlest zephyr (hence the scientific name for the species, populus tremuloides) were scarce here before the Sloans Ridge fire.
Swanson told me that aspen seeds can float for long distances, buoyed by summer thermals, and the species thrives in recently scorched soil.
I believe I hiked the Peavy Trail at least once between my 2006 visit with Swanson, and this year’s trip when I was accompanied by my wife, Lisa, and our kids, Olivia and Max.
But I don’t remember the hike, or when it might have happened.
Perhaps I didn’t go at all.
It could be that my memory is confusing Peavy Trail with the nearby Cunningham Cove Trail, which I hiked in September 2012.
In any case, the scene has changed considerably in the ensuing 14 years — more dramatically, to my eyes, than the transformation between 1996 and 2006.
The lodgepoles still dominate but, in common with adolescents of many species, they have shot right up. Many stand at least 15 feet high, with boles nearly as thick as a power pole. Their branches in many places jutted across the trail tread, and we often had to brush them aside as we passed.
Most of the fire-killed trees have long since fallen, their gray skeletons scattered about like cornstalks in autumn.
Other conifers seemed to me much more common than I remembered from 2006, including subalpine firs (many of which would be ideal Christmas trees; alas, you can’t cut trees in wilderness areas) and an occasional tamarack.
After 2 miles the trail, having generally paralleled the river to that point, veers away and begins its steep 2-mile climb to Cracker Saddle.
As we ascended, I noticed the clumps of mature trees that survived the fire. I couldn’t discern any apparent pattern in these islands, as they grew on all slope aspects. The majority were relatively high on the canyon walls, where many of the springs rise that give birth to the North Fork. Or perhaps it was merely some vagaries of wind that spared these places, the fire moving so quickly that once the flames had passed the danger was over.
At Cracker Saddle we stopped to have a snack. The pause was briefer than I would have liked but I quickly tired of swatting at the horseflies, generally to no effect except to tire my arms.
On the way down I noticed, just off the trail, a handful of knee-high ponderosa pine seedlings. They looked out of place here, at around 7,000 feet in the alpine zone, generally too high for the long-needled ponderosas to prosper.
I wondered whether a ponderosa had grown nearby, its burned carcass now indistinguishable from the dozens of others strewn about.
Or whether, much like that fledgling aspen that Swanson spied back in 2006, the ponderosas’ parent still stands, green and tall, on a distant but unburned slope, the seeds having hitched a ride in a bird’s beak and ended up here, to add some variety to a forest I’ll never see reach its former majesty.