Deerbroom lotus and rabbitbrush provide fall color, five years after the King Range Horse Fire.

By Cheryl Lisin, with Rob DiPerna
Friends of Lost Coast

The forest is thick at the Saddle Mountain Trailhead in the King Range National Conservation Area. Much of the approximately one mile of trail from here to the site of the 2015 Horse Fire passes through overly dense stands of Douglas-fir and tanoak, interspersed with canyon live oak, madrone, and a small stand of sugar pine. The density and composition of these forest stands make me wonder if it was past logging, contemporary fire exclusion, or a historic fire that created these conditions.

At the site of the Horse Fire on the Buck Creek Trail, which burned approximately 146 acres on this southwest-facing ridge in the King Range in August 2015, the view opens up, with charred tree remains framing ocean vistas. There is a large madrone, charred at its base but still standing with fresh, new, green leaves, proving the tree’s survival and persistence.

The terrain here is rugged, rocky, steep, and difficult to access for all but the hardiest of hikers. The Buck Creek Trail features one of the steepest grades in the coastal mountain range, following an old logging skid road route from Saddle Mountain down to the
seaside, descending 3,300 feet in four and a half miles.

Green Everywhere

There was green to be seen everywhere—from regenerating Douglas-fir and stands of sugar pine, to manzanita and madrone, to the many shrub and sub-shrub species—the landscape is bursting back to life in this open, higher montane chaparral ecosystem of the King Range.

Living with Fire - five years after the Horse Fire.
Snags frame scenic ocean vistas, five years after the Horse Fire.

I visited the Horse Fire site shortly after the fire in October of 2015 to see what the plant life there was doing. Already madrone, manzanita, whitethorn, and poison oak were sprouting from their stumps, and grasses were germinating everywhere. The ambience was eerie on that day five years ago, an overcast, cool, and foggy day that was punctuated by the charred forest and the stumps left behind from fire suppression and fire-fighting activities.

Five Years Later

Revisiting this site five years later, I see that the shrubs and trees that had just sprouted when I last saw them have all grown to be six to ten feet tall! Flowering sub-shrubs have filled in much of the open areas, and rabbitbrush and yerba santa abound. I bet it was spectacular when these were in full bloom. The plants now are covered in a plethora of spent flower heads going to seed.

It must have been a good year for manzanita berries as well; the various types of scat found along the trail were chock full of them. Birds and insects were plentiful in these burned areas, too, and tiny lizards could be seen darting and scrambling around on the rocks and in the underbrush.

Yet, even in mid-October, the south- and west-facing steep mountain slopes where the 2015 Horse Fire burned were warm, dry, and exposed. Despite having the largest waterbody on Earth just three thousand feet below, the air was also dry, lacking humidity, and the solar radiation was at times direct and intense.

The many Douglas-fir seedlings sometimes formed a dense groundcover. Spindly sprouting tanoak can also be seen recapturing ground it once covered. The density and swiftness of the Douglas-fir and tanoak regeneration leads me to wonder if in 50 years this forest will resemble the dense thicket of forest I walked through to get here. My concern was heightened further by the discovery of an illegal campsite and fire ring nestled on a switchback in an unburned area dominated by young Douglas-fir and tanoak.

An illegal campfire in the King Range. Living with Fire N. California.
An illegal campfire in the King Range

On the hike out, I once again passed through the dense thicket of Douglas-fir and tanoak forest present on the return to the Saddle Mountain Trailhead. I wondered: what can be done to prevent this same exact cycle of events from happening all over again?

The entirety of the area burned in the 2015 Horse Fire is within designated wilderness, in the rugged, steep, difficult-to-access mountains of the King Range National Conservation Area. The wilderness designation, along with the difficult terrain and limitations on staffing and budget, pose challenges to the BLM’s ability to proactively manage the area to prevent the forest from regenerating in the exact same way it had before the 2015 Horse Fire.

Living with Fire

All it would take is one campfire at an illegal campsite like the one I found to be left burning or to escape to start the cycle of events all over again. Although the cause of the Horse Fire was never definitively determined, it is believed that an illegal campfire set it into motion. Staffing and funding limitations on our public land management agencies mean that adequate permit enforcement and law enforcement are lacking; it is simply impossible for the small, dedicated staff to be everywhere at once. Thus we are forced to be living with fire again in the future.

A summer lightning strike could also set the cycle back into motion. The warming climate has led to numerous summer days with temperatures over 100 degrees inland and over 70 degrees on the coast locally, and this is now happening well into October. Little to no rain and warm, dry days, combined with overly dense and unnaturally composed forest stand structure, have extended the specter of fire season further into the fall.

Thinking back on that overcast, foggy, and eerie day in the recently charred remains of forest on the Horse Fire five years ago, I wonder how start living with fire and what the future might bring for the green, lively, regenerating landscape of the present.

For more information: lostcoast.org