Much of Opal Creek Forest Hit Hard by Beachie Creek Fire

By Zach Urness | March 8, 2021

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — One of the most beloved destinations in Oregon looks a lot different following the blowup of the Beachie Creek Fire.

Large swaths of the 34,000-acre Opal Creek Wilderness and Recreation Area burned after historic winds turned a small fire into an inferno Labor Day night.

The fire destroyed the bridge over Henline Creek — the main access point from Salem and Portland. It also killed many of the trees, including old-growth giants, on Henline Falls, Little North Santiam and Opal Creek trails and in the surrounding area.

All of the buildings at the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center at Jawbone Flats burned except one — cabin 4. The site’s outdoor classroom and water treatment plant also survived.

“It’s horrific,” Ancient Forest Center executive director Dwayne Canfield told the Salem Statesman Journal after getting pictures of the area from fire crews. “It’s not a total wasteland, and there’s some green. But overall, it’s pretty bad.”

It’s unclear the impact to every spot across the sprawling temperate rainforest in the Cascade Foothills, but the fire appeared to burn very hot down the Little North Santiam canyon in particular.

Overall, 74% of the Opal Creek National Recreation and Wilderness area burned at high or moderate severity, indicating significant tree mortality.

“We do know that large swaths of the Opal Creek Wilderness were subject to high-severity fire,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Joanie Schmidgall said.

In the meantime, the area remains closed, potentially for a long time, with rain and snow likely to bring landslides to unstable slopes.

The entire Detroit Ranger District, including the Opal Creek area, is closed to the public. The number of downed trees, standing dead trees, ash pits and smoldering fire still make it a hazardous area to enter, officials said.

Violators of a closure order may be ticketed and subject to a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment of not more than six months, or both, fire officials said.

Even so, pictures, videos and descriptions of the area have begun trickling out, showing the impact to an area that had become one of the most popular places to hike and swim in Oregon’s outdoors.

The fact that the Little North Santiam was heavily impacted doesn’t come as a surprise.

The narrow canyon was engulfed in flames Labor Day evening and the next morning, according to people who narrowly escaped from the area.

All five deaths from the Beachie Creek Fire occurred in the Little North canyon, including that of George Atiyeh, the environmentalist who spent a lifetime working to conserve the Opal Creek forest from logging.

The vast majority of houses and cabins in the Elkhorn area were also destroyed.

“The North Fork area is a good example, for better or worse, of how a wind-driven fire can get funneled down a condensed canyon,” Schmidgall said.

The Beachie Creek Fire ignited in a remote, steep corner of the Opal Creek Wilderness on Aug. 16, following a lightning storm, bringing evacuations to Jawbone Flats and the surrounding forest.

The fire smoldered at about 25 acres for weeks, growing little. But due to concerns over firefighter safety, it wasn’t completely put out, forest officials said at the time, even as helicopters dropped water on it.

In depth:`Missed opportunity?’ Records detail Forest Service response to Beachie Creek Fire before blowup

The fire blew up on Labor Day night on historically high east winds that reached at least 75 mph. It eventually joined wildfires started by downed power lines in the Santiam Canyon to form a 193,282-acre blaze.

It remains unclear where the original Beachie Creek Fire ended and where the power lines fire began, officials said.

“Where each fire burned and where they merged is still a piece of the puzzle that we’re working on,” Schmidgall said.

Just about everything in the Little North Santiam canyon was touched, and often severely burned, by the wildfire.

The network of Marion County parks including North Fork, Bear Creek campground and Salmon Falls were hit hard, officials said.

The impact appears to get worse upstream, past the Elkhorn community on the border of Willamette National Forest. Beyond the destroyed bridge spanning Henline Creek, the popular Henline Falls and Little North Santiam trails were burned severely, videos and pictures show. Henline Mountain also appears to be hit hard.

The impact continues up Forest Service Road 2209 and onto Opal Creek Trail, where numerous trees were burned, knocked down by the wind, or both.

The Gold Creek Bridge remains intact, along with the Battle Ax bridge, although both sustained some damage.

Around Jawbone Flats, the fire appeared to burn somewhat less severely. Although the fire only left one building standing, there appears to be patches of green, Canfield said, in addition to the cabin, outdoor classroom and water treatment facility.

“There’s a few trees still standing in the downtown Jawbone Flats area, but not a bunch,” he said. “There is some green in every picture. It’s not all bad.”

Canfield said it’s not clear what the next move is for the Ancient Forest Center.

Further up Opal Creek itself, there is also impact, including at Cedar Flats, the iconic grove of ancient western red cedars.

“The report for Cedar Flats was that it was pretty hard hit,” Canfield said. “But there may still be a few of the big trees standing.”

Although the wildfire had the greatest impact, the winter is likely to bring more challenges to accessing the remote and narrow canyon.

In addition to the bridge over Henline Creek being out, landslides are likely in places where the fire burned down to the soil.

Residents in the Elkhorn area have already seen the Little North Santiam spike much quicker than normal after rain because there’s less vegetation and roots to limit runoff.

Given all the challenges, it’s likely the area will remain closed for the foreseeable future, officials said.

The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, in the Columbia Gorge, kept some trails closed for years — and some still haven’t reopened.

About Zach Urness

Urness wrote this for the Salem Statesman Journal.

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