The smoke is long gone from the wildfires that closed much of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness last summer, but concerns linger for hikers, hunters and horse groups.
About 90 of the 274 miles of trails in the wilderness were impacted by the fires, said Rich Martin, Umatilla National Forest trails coordinator in Pomeroy.
“What’s most worrisome are the standing snags,” he said. “We’ll be dealing with them for years.”
Partially covered holes created by burned out stumps can be a hazard, especially to horses, he said.
Traditionally, most of the use in the wilderness was during the late summer and fall big-game hunting seasons. But Martin said more and more hikers are discovering the wilderness that straddles the Washington-Oregon border.
“The Oregon Butte Lookout (staffer) had 200 hike-in visitors stop by in the first 20 days after I packed her in the last week of June,” Martin said. “It used to be a trickle.”
The 2015 Grizzly Fire burned through an area of about 84,000 acres after being ignited during an Aug. 13 lightning storm.
Wildlife biologists had said for years that the wilderness desperately needed a fire of some sort to rejuvenate habitat for the Blue Mountains elk herd.
“This should be what the doctor ordered for elk,” Martin said, noting that the fire generally burned in a mosaic pattern, leaping to leave patches of timber untouched.
“The grass in most burned areas came up green and beautiful this spring,” he said.
Exceptions include Moore Flat (north of the Wenaha River and west of Crooked Creek), which burned hot and is a heartbreaking sight to some people, he said.
“And the first 15 miles up the Wenaha River from Troy is mostly dead.
“Of the 90 trail miles in burns, 44 miles are in high-severity burns and are highly erodible,” Martin said.
Volunteer trail crews have helped the Forest Service make significant headway in opening and rehabilitating some of the trails.
A Spokane Mountaineers group hiked into the highly impacted Wenaha River area out of Troy in March, working four days to clear downfall, clean out water bars and other chores on 11 miles of trails.
“And they had a great time doing it,” Martin said.
The Forest Service secured a $40,000 grant to deal with some of the high-erosion areas where a lot of rock was rolling down hillsides and blocking some trails, Martin said.
“We didn’t reseed anything in the wilderness, but the native grass came in nicely in most spots,” he said.
A Washington Trails Association group tackled nine miles of Panjab-area trail clogged with downfall coming down from the 2006 wildfires.
“We put them up in the Tucannon Guard Station and they got a lot done,” Martin said.
The Rattlesnake Ridge Chapter of Back Country Horsemen sawed out 17 miles of trail.
“They’ve been coming down here for 20 years and they’re really proficient with crosscut saws,” Martin said, noting that chain saws can’t be used in the wilderness.
“They cleared the Slick Ear Trail, Twin Buttes down to Butte Creek and the Grizzly Bear Ridge.”
Last week, Forest Service firefighters joined a trail crew to log out 15 miles in the Crooked Creek, Melton Creek areas.
“They also treated miles of trails for noxious weeds on Crooked Creek and, believe it or not, they found a still-smoking fire apparently from last summer inside a big old standing pine on Moore Flat.
“Smoldered all winter. They took care of it, but it was in a completely burned area so it wasn’t going anywhere.”
Martin plans to maintain about 17 miles of the Smooth Ridge Trail from Oregon Butte to the Wenaha River. “We expect there could be some big pines down on that stretch,” he said.
The 2015 fires spell plenty of work still to come.
“After about 10 years, the burned snags decay and they start coming down like toothpicks,” Martin said.
Any dead tree is weakened, he said.
“People need to be especially aware of where they camp in burned areas,” Martin said. “I move my crews away from traditional campsites to wide open areas when we go into a burn.
“We’ll try to clear out some hazards over the years, but it will take a while to get to them.”
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