Backcountry trails, wildlife habitat will be impacted
By Ann McCreary
Reconnaissance flights over the area burned by the Diamond Creek Fire, which is still burning in some places, are revealing the extent of the fire’s effects on trails, camps, habitat and structures.
More assessments of the burn severity within the almost 127,498 acres burned by the fire will provide additional information about the future recovery of the landscape.
Evacuation orders were lifted early this week for the Mazama, Rendezvous and Cub Creek areas as the fire behavior moderated as a result of cooler, fall-like weather. Fire managers focused on repairing areas damaged during fire suppression activities, with crews at work in the Ruffed Grouse and Ortell Creek areas, and along primary fire lines south of the fire area.
Fire managers monitored fire that is burning in Monument Creek, Pat Creek and the Tungsten Mine area. The fire had slightly more activity early in the week in Monument Creek due to warming temperature, but there was minimal movement in Pat Creek and the Tungsten Mine areas.
A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team from the U.S. Forest Service has begun work to identify risks of erosion and assess threats to human life and property from the fire. The results of the team’s assessment will probably be available in couple of weeks, said Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu.
In the meantime, Liu advised residents in the Lost River area to be alert to potential flooding if there is significant rainfall in areas burned by the Diamond Creek Fire above the Lost River drainage.
“We’ll know more after the BAER team does its assessment. But we could get some fairly significant flows, similar to what happened after the Carlton Complex Fire,” Liu said. Thunderstorms that followed the Carlton Complex Fire produced flash floods and mudslides in burned drainages that caused extensive damage to properties downstream.
“There should be a heads up to folks that live along Lost River … if they live adjacent to Lost River or just downstream of Lost River where it comes into the Methow,” Liu said.
The Diamond Creek Fire and other major fires of the past 20 years have burned about 65 percent of the 531,000-acre Pasayten Wilderness, one of the largest in the state. The wildfire has impacted popular hiking, camping and hunting areas within the wilderness, and many areas will take decades to recover.
“As a community, people are grieving to a degree about losing favorite camping spots or trails,” Liu said. “While fire changed the landscape, it’s a natural process. This place will recover. It might take a lifetime, but these [lands] are resilient and will recover.”
Among the recreation resources impacted by the fire are three major trails — Hidden Lakes (477) and Larch Pass (502) from the Billy Goat Trailhead, and the Boundary Trail, part of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, said John Rohrer, wildlife biologist for the Methow ranger district.
The Billy Goat Trailhead is a primary access into this part of the wilderness. The extent of the impacts to trails from that trailhead will be better known after burn severity assessments are made, he said. “It will be similar to the Farewell or Tripod fires, with large areas next to the trails with burned trees,” Rohrer said. “Our maintenance load will increase” due to dead trees falling on the trail, he said.
Three outfitter/guide operators use camps located in the Sheep Mountain, Spanish Camp, Beaver Creek and Hidden Lakes areas, Liu said. He said he was not aware of any permanent camps that burned, although access into those areas may be impacted.
The Forest Service has several cabins within the Diamond Creek Fire perimeter that are used by the agency, and none of them burned, Liu said. “They were all wrapped [in fire-resistant material] at various times,” he said. The buildings are located at Hidden Lakes, Spanish Camp and the Pasayten Airport.
A historic cabin and bunkhouse at the Tungsten Mine, near the headwaters of the Chewuch River, also survived the fire, Liu said. An outhouse and a private cabin near the Billy Goat Trailhead burned, but another cabin there survived, he said. Forest Service officials aren’t sure about the fate of a couple of bridges on Diamond Creek, although a lower bridge survived, Liu said.
Among wildlife impacts, the fire will most affect the lynx, a federally listed threated species, said Rohrer. “The entire fire area was within designated critical habitat” for the lynx, Rohrer said. “So much of their habitat has already been impacted by fire in the last 20 years.”
Lynx do best in terrain that is relatively flat, with heavy conifer cover, as do snowshoe hares, which lynx eat almost exclusively, Rohrer said. A lot of that terrain was burned in the Tripod Fire of 2006, he said.
“It will be 25 years before forest succession … will provide a dense cover for lynx,” Rohrer said. When habitat is lost, lynx are forced to move to other areas that may provide more marginal habitat, he said.
“In terms of wildlife habitat in general, fire will change habitat. What’s bad for one species will be good for another. Conifer-dominated areas will change to grass,” and that is good for species such as moose and bear, Roher said.
The fire is likely to have a detrimental effect on whitebark pine regeneration, said Liu. Whitebark pine, a high-elevation tree that is a candidate for listing as a threatened species, regenerates when its seeds are spread by the Clark’s Nutcracker, which caches the seeds. The large area burned by the fire means that it will be a long time before some areas see the trees return.
“With the scale of this fire you would see a long recovery period for whitebark pine to reestablish in high elevations,” Liu said. “When you look at the perimeter, it’s a long way to cache seeds.”
Some roads in and around the fire area remain closed, including Eightmile Creek Road from 2 miles above Honeymoon Campground to Billy Goat Trailhead, and Yellow Jacket Road. A countywide burn ban is still in effect.
The Diamond Creek Fire was first reported on July 23. An initial attack by eight smokejumpers and a 20-person crew was unable to contain the fire, which has been determined to be human-caused.
Information about the fire is available at inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5409/ or on the Diamond Creek Fire Facebook page.