Last September the Table Mountain Fire burned more than 41,000 acres of public lands, mostly in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest outside Ellensburg. The forest service closed public access to the mountain for months, only reopening roads to the popular recreation site last month.
What’s there to be seen today is a fascinating mosaic of lands touched, and untouched by the fire. Amid the charred remains of trees burned to charcoal are others only lightly touched by fire, and other areas still fresh and green. And everywhere, there are signs of renewal.
To protect the meadows just starting to regenerate, the popular Table Mountain Star Party which usually draws more than 750 people to this 5,000 foot high mountain redoubt has been relocated. That’s to allow the meadows to recover, and protect bare soils from weed seeds tracked in with people and their vehicles, said Judy Hallisey, district ranger for the forest service based in Cle Elum.
The fire was a actually a series of fires started by lightning the evening of Sept. 8, 2012. Those fires came together as a blaze dubbed the Table Mountain Fire on September 19, and burned until November seasonal rains finally put them out.
Most of the timber burned in the fire has no economic value, so won’t be salvaged, or replanted, Hallisey said. Instead, it will be allowed to regenerate naturally. Fire is natural to these mountains, Hallisey said, and the ecosystem is built to renew itself. Lodgepole pine cones open in the heat of a blaze, casting seeds of the next generation. Meadows burn, but the roots of native bunch grass and wildflowers survive to sprout fresh new growth, stimulated by the burn off of duff and dead material.
On a visit last month, lupine were set to unfurl their blue flowers, painting meadows lavender blue, and the shooting star and glacier lily were already flowering.
While most of the public attention was on the places that burned hot and hard, the fire was actually more complex. Within the perimeter of the burn area, 36 percent was unburned, 19 percent was lightly touched, 13 percent was moderately affected, and 32 percent was just plain roasted, torched, cooked, blackened.
In the severely burned areas, the canopy was consumed, leaving just dead spikes and snags, and even burned roots.
In moderately affected areas, there are dead trees, but some of them still retain their needles. There is brush that is burned, but branches and twigs that are green, and still offer ground cover.
In areas of low severity, there are still some green trees, as well as grasses, and brush, the area is largely unaffected.
So fickle was the fire that some trees were burned on one side, but not the other:
In the long term, fire is a tool of renewal as much as destruction in these landscapes that evolved with fire.