Experiencing fire ecology firsthand in the Devil Fire

The Devil Fire burning below Kangaroo Mountain in the Red Buttes Wilderness. Photo: USFS, Brett Brown

This summer while wind-driven wildfires raged throughout the region, tragically burning homes and communities, the Devil Fire quietly burned through the headwaters of the Applegate River watershed in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area. Threatening no homes or communities, the ironically named Devil Fire burned through intact conifer forests, chaparral, and mixed evergreen forests, restoring fire as a natural process and creating highly beneficial wildfire effects.

The Devil Fire began as a human ignition of unknown origin, high on the Siskiyou Crest near Upper Devil’s Peak on the Klamath River side of the ridge, at about the same time as the nearby Almeda and Slater Fires. Pushed by strong winds and hidden under a thick blanket of smoke from fires across the region, the Devil Fire was not even detected until September 9 when it had reached roughly 500 acres and was well established in the remote backcountry of the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area.

This photograph depicts conditions around Upper Devils Peak (left) and upper Portuguese Creek before the Devil Fire began. The area is steep, inaccessible and dominated by montane chaparral that burned in the 2012 Fort Goff Complex.

Burning through montane chaparral on exposed south-facing slopes, the fire initially took hold during incredibly dry and exceptionally windy conditions. The extremely rocky terrain and light fuels regenerated after the 2012 Fort Goff Fire moderated fire behavior, however, the strong winds fueled fire growth to both the north and south. Once the wind died down, both fire intensity and spread significantly diminished and portions of the fire self-extinguished on the recently burned south-facing slopes above the Klamath River.

By September 11, the Devil Fire had burned north over the Siskiyou Crest near the rocky, rugged summit of Rattlesnake Mountain and into the Butte Fork of the Applegate River. The Butte Fork is the main drainage in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area and contains some of the most intact old-growth forest remaining in the Applegate River watershed. Although large portions of the Red Buttes Wilderness Area, the Kangaroo Inventoried Roadless Area and the Butte Fork drainage have burned in recent years, the Devil Fire backed downhill into areas with no recorded fire history.

Low severity, understory fire effects on the lower Butte Fork maintained a green canopy of old-growth trees, while much of the understory vegetation burned.

Finding sufficient fuels and dry early fall weather, the Devil Fire continued to burn in the Butte Fork watershed below the towering summits of Red Butte, Kangaroo Mountain, Desolation Peak and Rattlesnake Mountain until mid-October. The few fire personnel assigned to the fire essentially allowed the fire to burn down the rugged and inaccessible northern slopes of the Siskiyou Crest to the Butte Fork drainage, where for the most part the fire was extinguished both naturally and with a little help from fire crews. In only one location did the fire cross the lower Butte Fork drainage, burning both sides of the stream down to its confluence with the Middle Fork Applegate River.

Low severity fire along the Butte Fork Trail.

The mosaic created by the Devil Fire consists of largely low to moderate severity fire effects. In total, the Devil Fire burned at 71% low to very low severity, 11% moderate severity and 18% high severity. By and large, the low to moderate severity fire occurred in forested habitats, while the high severity fire burned in stands of montane chaparral.

Burning under moderated weather conditions and a heavy smoke inversion, the mosaic in the Butte Fork canyon and in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area includes 86% low severity, 6% moderate and 8% high severity fire effects. For about a month and half, the forests of the Butte Fork canyon burned as a vast, low intensity, understory fire, cleaning up fuels and burning back understory vegetation, while maintaining the old-growth forest canopy that dominates the watershed.

A Soil Burn Severity map produce by Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams for the Devil Fire shows a diverse mosaic of fire effects. The green is very low severity, the bluish-green is low severity, yellow is moderate severity and red represents high severity fire.
Fire intensity was moderated by heavy smoke inversions and favorable weather conditions, creating a vast understory fire in the Butte Fork canyon.

The heavy smoke inversion blanketing the region and covering the sun throughout southern Oregon and northern California trapped humidity, reduced ambient air temperatures and limited air movement across the Devil Fire area, essentially suffocating the fire as it slowly burned down the steep slopes of the Siskiyou Crest and into the dark forested canyon of the Butte Fork.

With the Devil Fire area now open to the public, you can hike the Shoofly and Butte Fork Trails through the fire area. The hike winds along the Butte Fork Applegate River among massive old trees blackened but not killed by the fire. As you walk through the charcoal and soot of the Devil Fire, enjoy the lush green canopy and the rushing stream.

Minimal torching and tree mortality characterize the fire effects in the lower Butte Fork canyon.

This coming spring and summer, the understory will sprout back in renewal, triggering fresh new woody growth for browsing deer and elk, abundant berry crops, and a profusion of wildflowers creating pollen and nectar for local bees, butterflies and other pollinating species. Cavities or hollows have been burned into both standing snags and live trees, creating nesting and denning habitat for Northern spotted owls, Pacific fisher, black bear, goshawks, woodpeckers, song birds and a multitude of wildlife species. New snags have been created, old snags have been deposited onto the forest floor and into the wild stream, creating habitat complexity.

Like all things in nature, the Devil Fire is part of the cycle of life, death and rejuvenation. These systems have adapted to wildfire as one of the many processes that shape vegetation and habitat conditions across the landscape. The Devil Fire burned its legacy into the forests of the Applegate and has the potential to leave an impression on all those who experience it firsthand. For many, the diversity of its mosaic, the beauty of its renewal, and the abundance fire creates is both surprising and inspirational.

Please go out and experience the Devil Fire and the Butte Fork canyon for yourself. The area can be explored along the Shoofly and Butte Fork Trails. Go check out your local fire adapted forests and experience their fiery renewal!

The beautiful Butte Fork Applegate River following the 2020 Devil Fire.

Butte Fork Trailhead Directions:

Horse Camp Trail Access: Follow Upper Applegate Road past the Applegate Dam and around Applegate Reservoir to the intersection of Carberry Creek Road and Elliott Creek Road. Turn left on Elliott Creek Road and continue driving past Seattle Bar to the California/Oregon border. Immediately after the pavement ends, at a wide intersection, turn sharply to the right on Middle Fork Road (FS Road 1040). Continue 3.7 miles up the Middle Fork Road and look for the Horse Camp Trailhead on the left. Park at the trailhead and hike the trail to the first trail junction, heading right on the Butte Fork Trail.

Shoofly Trail Access: Follow the directions above, but pass up the Horse Camp Trail and follow Middle Fork Road another 1.3 miles upstream, turning left on a large bridge and staying on road 1040. Continue uphill for roughly 2 miles to the Shoofly Trailhead on the left. The Shoofly Trail drops quickly to the Butte Fork Trail. Once on the Butte Fork Trail you can head downstream (left) into the fire area or upstream (right) along the Butte Fork Trail into the 2012 Hello Fire area with the Devil Fire just across the canyon.

Hiking the Butte Fork Trail.

2 thoughts on “Experiencing fire ecology firsthand in the Devil Fire”

  1. The silver lining of a horrible fire season. There are lessons to be learned. Thanks for the interesting article and directions to the trails.

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