Lee Webb, retired biologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, walks through a stand of dead trees on the Babyfoot Lake Trail burned in the Biscuit fire in 2002. - Jamie Lusch

The Biscuit Fire: Ten Years Later

Like silent sentinels guarding the legacy of the 2002 Biscuit fire, blackened trees tower over the budding bright green conifers growing up from the forest floor.

The stark contrast is in the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, a site where the Biscuit-fire blowtorch burned particularly hot.

"But with plants and animals after a fire, there are winners, losers and spectators," explained Lee Webb, biologist for the forest during the 2002 Biscuit fire.

"A wildfire is not bad or good," he added of a naturally caused blaze. "It just is."

Webb was a member of the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team that began a scientific assessment of the fire's impact even before the fire was out.

He had been studying the Babyfoot Lake area since the mid-1970s.

Now retired after working 30 years in the forest, he continues to keep tabs on the aftermath of the fire in the Babyfoot Lake area.

The glacially formed lake is tucked just inside the eastern edge of the 183,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.

The trailhead to the lake is about a dozen air miles west of Kerby, a hamlet some 25 road miles south of Grants Pass.

A region known for its rich botanical diversity, it includes some 200 species of trees, shrubs, herbs, lichens, mosses and fungi, most of which scientists expect will return as the forest slowly rebuilds from the ground up.

"Fires have been burning across this landscape for tens of thousands of years," observed Tom Sensenig, the U.S. Forest Service's ecologist for southwestern Oregon. "As fire moves across the landscapes, it selectively kills trees and thins the forest. Species most adaptive to frequent fire events survive.

"Over time, these landscapes become fire adaptive ecosystems," he added. "They are not only fire adaptive, but fire dependent."

For instance, he noted that a stand of knob cone pine on Fiddler Mountain a few miles northeast of Babyfoot popped up after the fire's intense heat opened their cones. The cones are encased in a thick resin that can only be released when the heat reaches about 250 degrees, he explained.

When it comes to winners and losers, the rare Brewer spruce in the area was both, he said.

"When the fire burned through the Babyfoot area, it was very intense — a crown fire that was basically a stand replacement fire," he said, noting it killed many of the rare spruce in that area.

"But just over the ridge, the fire dropped to the ground, creating an environment for Brewer spruce to germinate," he said. "There is now a stand of Brewer spruce growing there."

Over the approximately 700 square miles burned by the fire, given the various factors that impacted the blaze, it burned in a variety of intensities, he said.

"There was a tremendous diversity of impacts throughout the area," said Sensenig who gave a presentation last year on fire ecology and the Biscuit fire to graduate students at Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The agency continues to study the impact of the fire on 80 ecological sites it has established, which are re-measured every 10 years. Some of the sites were established prior to the fire, some as early as the 1970s.

"As ecologists, we don't look at a forest as recovering from a fire but as a succession," he explained. "It's not good or bad. We are monitoring it so we will have a better understanding over the long term. We are learning from this.

"These are long-term studies that will be continuing long after I'm gone," he added.

Back on the trail, Webb noted the mile-long path to the lake is now a scorching hike on a hot summer afternoon, thanks to the loss of the forest canopy.

"It's a little depressing to some people because they were used to walking through the shade," Webb said. "But when you start to look at it, the dead trees in their own way have their own beauty."

Some of the trees have shed their burned bark like last winter's coat, leaving a smooth buckskin.

At their feet rise young conifers, some 6 feet tall, including pine, fir and several rare Brewer spruce, also known as weeping spruce.

"All these young trees you see are post-fire," he said. "It took a few years for the conifers to really get going but they are coming back now."

Since the trees were not planted, they popped up from seeds, he said. The seeds could have blown in or been brought in by an animal.

Or maybe they were already here and didn't burn up, he said.

"Did the fire kill every seed that was on the ground? I don't think so," he said. "The seed was probably already here. There were things that weren't cooked."

There are also opportunists, such as the mass of bear grass with its telltale white blossoms coating the forest floor. Color it among the winners.

"Some things take advantage of the light that comes through after a forest is opened up by a fire," he explained.

He was looking for a Bolander's lily, a flower with a red-orange blossom that was abundant in the area right after the fire.

"I didn't know there was Bolander's lily in this area until we had the fire," he said. "A few years ago, there was some right here."

But the colorful lily is a no-show this July.

As Webb walked on, a chipmunk scurried along a fire-killed tree sprawled out near the trail.

"Some animals can get caught by the fire, but a lot of them survive, particularly the ones that can go underground," he said. "Of course, birds can fly away.

"But right after a fire you'll see dirt pushed up by a rodent," he added. "We saw a rattlesnake a week after the fire. The rattlesnake was going through cinders. He was doing fine. He had hidden in some hole."

He stopped at one spot to look up at the trees that are little more than limbless poles sticking up out of the ground.

"There was a lot of sugar pine, Doug fir and Brewer spruce right here," he said. "They got hit real hard."

While they were the losers, their death was a big win for woodpeckers, he said.

"You have more woodpeckers here now because there are more dead trees," he said. "There are insects in these dead trees."

A few fire-killed trees have fallen in the past decade. Others will topple soon. Others may not fall for decades.

"It's not all coming down next year," he said.

Scientists have determined there was more forage for deer right after the fire than there is now, he said, noting the emerging trees are beginning to overshadow the smaller plants.

"It's still not like a young forest that is closing things off, it is filling back in," he said.

Bracken fern is thriving along sections of the trail near a small stream trickling down a narrow canyon. Lady ferns step lightly from the damp but rocky soil. And red monkey flowers are about to burst forth from the damp soil.

More water is probably in the stream after the fire than before because the dead trees are no longer drawing water from the ground, Webb will tell you.

Indeed, the skeletal forest isn't sucking up anything now.

Farther along there are huckleberry bushes, although it is too early in the season to find a ripe berry. Tendrils of wild blackberry, a low bush native to the area, also can be seen along the trail.

An elderberry tree, already about five feet high, is sprouting up along the trail.

On rock outcroppings, sedum plants with pink blossoms are flourishing. The succulents often survive fire because they are farther away from vegetation that fuels a blaze, he noted.

"With some plants or animals, a fire doesn't make any difference to them," Webb said. "Others, it does matter. For instance, hermit warblers have no habitat here now because they are in the trees. But they will be back eventually."

Near the lake, most of the greenery remaining is on the north end near the outlet. That includes Brewer spruce, white fir and Port Orford cedar as well as azaleas in bloom.

"This patch somehow survived," he said.

But a hundred feet away, the trees were killed by the fire, as they were on the south and west sides of the lake.

The fire appears to have had little impact on the lake's inhabitants, including eastern brook trout, bass and rough-skinned newts.

"They were all spectators," Webb said.

Although a decade may seem a long time to humans, it is but a short time in nature, he said.

"In 10 years from now, there will more trees down," he said. "The conifers you see now that are already as tall as we are, they will be twice the size they are in another decade.

"It will start to look like a young forest at that point," he said. "There will be less forage than there is now."

But he figures it will be at least a century before the old-growth forest returns.

"Some of these big trees were probably a hundred to a couple of hundred years old when the fire came," he said. "It will take awhile before they are the size of the big ones that burned in 2002.

"It will be the 22nd century when people finally come here and think this is what it probably looked like before Biscuit," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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