Life Among the Ruins

The devastation left by the Rainbow Creek fire of September 2009. Black Rock in the distance is right across from the trailhead.

On Tuesday (August 30), I left the Hemlock Lake campground and drove the 18 miles or so east along the ridge to the Whitehorse Meadows trailhead at the northern end of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide. I wondered what might still be in bloom at the relatively high trail at about 5700′. Just a mile or so before the trailhead, I stopped at a favorite spot, a lovely roadside wet slope. It was filled with Parnassia cirrata, Kyhosia bolanderi, Erigeron aliceae, and there were also some lovely leopard lilies (Lilium pardalinum). It looked like things would be great along the trail. Then I noticed some burned trees above the wetland. Hmm. It wasn’t until I came around the corner and saw Black Rock, the prominent feature in this area, completely surrounded by dead trees, that I realized what had happened. What a shock! One of my favorite trails utterly devastated. The trail meanders slowly downhill over 3 miles to the large Whitehorse Meadows. Until just before the Whitehorse Meadows, almost no trees had survived this fire except a few in the many small patches of meadows, outcrops, and wetlands along the way. How did I not know this area had burned? It wasn’t until I got home and called the Diamond Lake Ranger District office of the Umpqua National Forest that I found out it burned in the fall of 2009, just a couple of months after my last visit here. The fire was named after Rainbow Creek, a tributary of Black Creek that starts nearby. It burned over 6,000 acres. It occurred around the same time as the Tumblebug Fire, which was much closer to me and kept me away from southern Oregon entirely. For a dramatic aerial photo of the fires, see Earth Snapshot.

The meadow areas were blooming just fine with perennials like this arrowleaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis).

Whitney’s goldenweed (Hazardia whitneyi var. discoidea) is found only in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide and the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California.

As tough as it was to walk through the charred remains of the forest, the best parts of the trail—the meadows and rocky areas—were carrying on as though nothing had changed around them. Small wet spots were lush and green and filled with the large white flower heads of Boykinia major. The larger damp meadows were filled with Senecio triangularis, Kyhosia bolanderi, Castilleja miniata, and Trifolium howellii. The outcrops that used to be somewhat hidden in the woods were more open. They were blooming with sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) and had evidently had a great bloom of Phlox diffusa. I was able to collect a good amount of seed, being careful not to prick my fingers on the sharp foliage. Quite a bit of Nothochelone nemorosa was blooming. Usually found in the shade, its stems typically lean over and have all the leaves on the same plane in order to soak up maximum light. When growing out in the sun, they stand straight up with their leaves perpendicular to the stem. Their flowers also seem to be a lighter pink. They look much more like a penstemon and are frequently not recognized by people familiar with their woodland habit. Lots of Eriogonum marifolium was still blooming in the large sloping scree area that looks out upon Whitehorse Meadows. Some of the rare endemic Hazardia whitneyi, a not very showy composite, were also in bloom. On all my previous trips, I’d seen a small patch here of Lotus crassifolius, a large perennial that is usually found along roadsides because of its preference for disturbance. It also likes burned land, so it didn’t surprise me to see many young plants starting near the original ones. The burn was apparently just what the seeds needed.

Someday these 2″ seedlings will be handsome tall trees that will once again cast shade on the forest floor.

The woods themselves might look completely dead at first glance. Down here in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, they are not as lush as farther north anyway. But there was actually quite a bit of life. A closer look at the ground made it clear that the forest was already recovering. Tiny conifer seedlings were everywhere. Both Rhododendron macrophyllum and Vaccinium membranaceum were resprouting well from the base. There were many small plants of the normally large Ribes viscossisimum, also recovering well. I noticed some had been eaten and were covered with frass. I checked several of these and turned up three hoary comma caterpillars, all at different stages from very small to nearly full grown. Later, along the road outside the burned area, I checked a 6-foot-wide shrub and found my very first chrysalis of a hoary comma. There was frass all over this particular plant. Some of the lower growing forest plants seemed to be benefitting from the burn. There was more Arnica latifolia than I remembered, some Arnica that I’d never even seen here, possibly mollis but more attractive than I’ve seen elsewhere, super large patches of Mimulus moschatus, and large areas of a liverwort, a Marchantia I think, covering areas of damp ground.

I was particularly saddened to see that this little contorted lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), which I had photographed in the large scree area in 2007 (L), was killed in the fire (R)

Whenever I see burned or clearcut forest, I always wonder what it must have been like for tree dwellers like squirrels. Did they make it out alive? If so, where could they go? Do squirrels from intact forest welcome these refugees? I was thinking about this while passing through a particularly hard hit and blackened part of the forest. A glint of blue caught my eye. Then more, flying in the same direction. It turned out there were at least 10 mountain bluebirds making their way through dead trees. It’s always a pleasure seeing these gorgeous birds, but I can’t remember ever seeing them on the west side of the Cascades. Mount Bailey was in sight, only 12 miles due east, so they weren’t that far across the Cascade crest. I heard the tapping of woodpeckers a number of times during the day and watched one downy woodpecker working a dead tree. Red-breasted nuthatches and some flycatchers also roamed the remains of the forest. Clearly there is still value to the trees for these animals.

A real treat—a gorgeous monarch (Danaus plexippus) enjoying a western coneflower (Rudbeckia occidentalis)

I finally reached the large green expanse of Whitehorse Meadows. The far side of the meadow was unaffected by the fire, and even on the trailside, there were finally live trees. It was a relief to see the fire did not reach any farther east here. I spent a while poking around the meadow. Some blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense) and Penstemon rydbergii were still showing some flowers. Goldenrod and yarrow bloomed well. There were a number of butterflies flitting about, but one in particular made me perk up—a monarch! I have only seen monarchs in the Western Cascades a few times. This gorgeous female was nectaring on the seemingly uninteresting dark heads of Rudbeckia occidentalis—actually a bee and butterfly favorite. She flew right in front of me and stayed just long enough for me to get a couple of photographs before she sailed across the meadow. There really is plenty of life after a forest fire. While this area will never look exactly like I remember it in my lifetime, it will be fascinating to return and see how it changes and recovers in the future.


4 Responses to “Life Among the Ruins”

  • Kris:

    Hi Tanya, I read this article shortly after you posted it and found it especially interesting. I enjoy all of your articles but this one made me think about burned areas, their ‘recovery’, and their impact on wildlife. There aren’t any recently burned areas in the hills I usually explore but if one ever occurs I’ll be very interested in it.


  • Jeffrey Caldwell:

    Thanks for your posts — I am looking for specific Lepidoptera – plant associations, such as the Monarch enjoying the nectar of Rudbeckia occidentalis. Previously I had no records for the plant! Also appreciated your photograph of a Pine White at nectar on Oregon Sunshine, another new record for me. Am reading your posts tagged “butterflies” …

    best regards,

  • Hi Jeffrey,

    Many butterflies seem happy to nectar on whatever is around, but there are some species that seem to favor certain plants. Horsemint (Agastache urticifolia) is invariably frequented by fritillaries. Whenever I’m lucky enough to see female great-spangled fritillaries, they are on mountain thistle (Cirsium remotifolium). Many of my photos of elfins are on Lomatiums, but that may just be because that is one of the few nectar plants out early in the spring. It is fascinating to watch butterflies and look for these associations. You might also want to look at my butterfly photo gallery ( where you’ll find additional photos, at least one for each species I’ve seen in the Western Cascades.

  • Lori Humphreys:

    I was doing a search of pics of Penstemon rydbergii, to see if that is what my photo from Fremont NF has in it, and I found another place I should go to! I like going to burned areas, and I see there are meadows too!

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