The Biscuit Fire 10 Years Later

What will the long-term data show?
Riparian vegetation has adapted to disturbances and flooding fairly quickly in its recovery after the fire. (Photo by Jessica Halofsky).

Riparian vegetation has adapted to disturbances and flooding fairly quickly in its recovery after the fire. (Photo: Jessica Halofsky).

The 2002 Biscuit Fire not only torched a half-million acres in Southern Oregon, it became a poster child for the debate over post-fire management and forest recovery. When the journal Science accepted a paper on the fire’s aftermath by then-graduate student Daniel Donato, it ignited a long-smoldering debate over what, if anything, should be done after fire scorches western forests. Stakeholders and commentators inside Oregon State and beyond — scientists, lawmakers, local officials, loggers, landowners, TV crews and newspaper reporters — weighed in on both ecology and academic freedom as the debate swirled around the Donato group’s work in 2006 (see “After the Fire,” Terra, Summer 2006.)

The controversy centered on salvage logging — the longtime practice of hauling out dead trees to use in lumber or other wood products. The Donato group’s paper suggested that burned-out stands might come back as strong when left alone to reseed naturally — a blow to the conventional wisdom that burnt forests regenerate best when logged and replanted.

“The Biscuit Fire has yielded several ecological surprises so far,” says Donato. “It ranks near the 1988 Yellowstone fires in expanding our knowledge of post-fire vegetation succession.”

A decade of new growth in the once-ravaged Siskiyou National Forest soon will generate more knowledge. Donato, now a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State, is leading a follow-up study with funding from the Joint Fire Sciences Program (managed by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Interior). The new study will look at the rates and patterns of post-fire vegetation growth, the effects of post-fire logging and the impact of subsequent burns.

“Large-scale fires are expected to become increasingly common throughout North America,” Donato notes. “We need long-term, scientific data to inform post-fire management options and outcomes.”

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