Fire Scars: The Story of a Ponderosa Pine

by guest author Pepper Trail, PhD.

The trees of southern Oregon write their own histories year by year, recording the wet and the dry winters, the heat and the cold, and the fires, especially the fires, in their living bodies.  The study of tree rings and fire scars has revealed a wealth of information about our forests, and has confirmed that frequent fire was almost universal throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou until the beginning of the twentieth century.  The following is the life story of one ponderosa pine and its experiences with fire. 

Brewer's spruces at Whisky Peak botanical area, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. photo by Shannon Browne

Brewer's spruces at Whisky Peak botanical area, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. photo by Shannon Browne

1723.  A New Life.  On a soggy April day, the needles of an infant ponderosa pine pierced the duff, and a tree was born.  Eight months earlier, the seed had whirled out its cone and had flown spinning to a fortunate landing under the shade of an ancient and half-dead black oak.  Falling into ashes left by a fire just weeks before, it was quickly covered.  There it sheltered through the summer’s heat, the autumn’s rain, and the winter’s snow, until springtime lit the fuse of life.

The tiny pine’s world was a valley in the eastern Siskiyou Mountains.  In the park-like forest of great trees, only three grew within a hundred feet of the seedling:  the black oak, an giant sugar pine, and a well-grown Douglas-fir.  The seedlings’s parent, an old ponderosa pine, was nearly two hundred feet further up the slope.  Between the two, a trail worn by the feet of elk, wolves, and Dakubetede people angled upward toward the ridgeline and dropped over a low saddle into the next drainage.  At the bottom of the valley, Pine Creek rushed north toward the Ta’khoo-pe River, later called the Applegate. 

1732.  Nine years old.  The pine had grown well. It stood over 10 feet tall, and was 4 inches across at its base.  The oak above it had died, and the slow process of decay was sending a steady trickle of nutrients into the pine’s roots.  In September, a line of flames blew up over the ridge and swept down the slope.  It was not a large fire, but it kindled more strongly in the pile of fallen bark heaped under the oak, and the side of the pine nearest the flames was scorched.  In the following weeks, the young tree repaired itself with tough new bark.  Hidden beneath that bark, the pine recorded its first fire scar.

1737.  Fourteen years old.  In the depths of winter, a starving porcupine waddled across the open expanse of snow to the young pine and laboriously began to climb.  Reaching the topmost rosette of branches, it settled into place and started to gnaw.  Within a few hours, the uppermost trunk of the pine was stripped of bark, and its growing tip was dead.

1747.  Twenty-four years old.  The pine had recovered well from its encounter with the porcupine.  It now had two growing tips, curving upward gracefully like a wishbone, and in this year, it produced its first cones.  In September, a slow-moving fire entered the little valley from below, one of the many started by the Dakubetede people at that time of year.  It left a small scar on the pine as it passed.

1754.  Thirty-one years old.  An August lightning storm spread fires throughout the mountains.  One of them moved through the valley and left its scar on the pine.  Despite the hot, dry weather, it found little fuel to feed it, and was soon gone.

1755.  Thirty-two years old.  In the nutrient-rich ashes left by the fires of the previous summer, a white fir had sprouted eight feet from the pine.  In less than a year, it would grow to more than three feet tall.

1769.  Forty-six years old.  After three dry years in a row, fires burned hot across the mountains.  One swept into the valley, driven by strong winds from the south.  The pine received a thick fire scar when the nearby white fir, unprotected by its thin bark, exploded into flames.

1770.  Forty-seven years old.  The pine lay down a broad growth ring, thanks to a wet winter and the death of the white fir, which had been a deadly competitor for water and nutrients.  It was a good year.

Fire scar on an Incense Cedar near Cook and Green Pass. photo by Jeanine Moy

Fire scar on an Incense Cedar near Cook and Green Pass. photo by Jeanine Moy

1784.   Sixty-one years old.  Another fire scar.

1794.   Seventy-one years old.  Another fire scar.

1800.  Seventy-seven years old.  Another fire scar.

1813.  Ninety years old.  Another fire scar.

1816.  Ninety-three years old.  A four-year old grizzly bear, recently driven into independence by its mother with bellows and slaps, entered the valley over the low saddle.  Prickling with aggression, it reared to its hind legs and scraped deep vertical gashes in the pine’s trunk with its four-inch claws.

1829.   One hundred and six years old. Another fire scar.

1833.   One hundred and ten years old. Another fire scar.

1841.  One hundred and eighteen years old. Another fire scar.

1852.   One hundred and twenty-nine years old.  A different sort of people entered the valley for the first time, bearded men carrying pans, picks, and guns.  The strange metallic sounds they made kept the squirrel that nested high in the pine in a constant state of noisy outrage, until she was shot.  The men did not find what they were looking for, and by the end of the summer they were gone.

photo by Jeanine Moy

photo by Jeanine Moy

1854.    One hundred and thirty-one years old.  One night, on silent feet, three women and eight children passed up the trail toward the mountains.  They were the last Dakubetede people ever to walk the path along Pine Creek. 

1855.  One hundred and thirty-two years old.  A group of huge, heavy-footed cattle found their way into the valley, the first to graze its rich bunchgrass.  They remained until the late autumn.  When they left, many of the mounds of bunchgrass were cropped to the ground and the slopes were littered with great desiccated slabs of dung.

1862. One hundred and thirty-nine years old. Another fire scar.

1866.  One hundred and forty-three years old.  Another new creature passed beneath the shadow of the pine.  A flock of nearly 100 sheep was driven by on the trail toward the high meadows.  In that autumn and many afterward, the creek ran brown and its deep pools filled with gravel washed down from high above.

1870.  One hundred and forty-seven years old.  Fires burned hot all summer, as miners throughout the mountains burned away plant cover to expose the bedrock to their view.  In some valleys, even old trees died when the flames managed to spread into their crowns.  The open forest of Pine Creek offered no such opportunity, and the pine received only a fire scar.

1883.  One hundred and sixty years old. Another fire scar.

1888.  One hundred and sixty-five years old.  A group of loggers entered Pine Creek, and for weeks the valley rang with the sounds of axes and saws.  All summer the men worked, felling the giant sugar pines and whittling them down into piles of roofing shakes.  When the men and their teams of horses departed, stumps and wood scraps were all that remained of the sugar pines of Pine Creek.  The big ponderosas were spared, too full of pitch for shakes and too large to drag away. 

1896. One hundred and seventy-three years old.  Smoke lay thick across the mountains all summer and fall, as fires spread from the overgrazed high meadows down into the lowest valleys.  The flames flared higher as they passed through the valley of Pine Creek, feeding on the piles of limbs still left from the logging eight years before.  The pine’s thick bark was badly scorched and some of its lower limbs were killed, but its double crown, now over one hundred feet tall, remained high above the fire.

1897.  One hundred and seventy-four years old.  In the spring following the big fires, the slopes of the valley were dotted with the sprouts of white fir, Douglas-fir, and ponderosa pine.  Moving to an ancient rhythm, new life sprang from the ashes and began its race against the next return of fire in five or ten or twenty years.  This time, unknown to all, fire would not return.  But the plants continued the race all the same.

1931. Two hundred and eight years old.  A different sort of conflagration had moved through the valley.  The bunchgrass was long gone, and new plants were spreading wherever there was enough sunlight:  cheatgrass, star thistle, and medusahead.  There were no young oaks, as they had all been eaten or trampled by the cattle.  And young firs were spreading everywhere, thirstily sucking all the water from the top layers of soil.  The pine grew more slowly every year.  It had never lived so long without fire.

A fire scar on a legacy tree in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument   photo by Diane Newell-Meyer

A fire scar on a legacy tree in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument   photo by Diane Newell-Meyer

1954.  Two hundred and thirty-one years old.  In the past half a century, the forest had changed more than in the previous thousand years.  A grizzly bear would have had a hard time pushing through the dense firs that covered the slopes; but of course all the grizzlies had been killed long ago.  The pine’s double head now rose above a tossing sea of branches, like a swimmer fighting for breath.  Four Douglas-firs and two white firs were crowded together within thirty feet of the old pine. 

In early September, smoke wreathed the pine’s long needles for the first time in over fifty     years.  A great fire was burning on the other side of the mountains.  For days, the valley      echoed with the throbbing of propellers as planes lumbered south to deliver smokejumpers      and water to the fire.  Finally, silence returned, and the smoke melted away.  The fire had been defeated. 

 1975.  Two hundred and fifty-two years old.  In June, a huge Caterpillar tractor entered the valley, blading a road along Pine Creek.  After that, a gang of men appeared every morning, bringing laughter, curses, and the unimaginable noise of chainsaws and heavy machinery.  They spent the summer executing a government timber sale.  The largest Douglas-fir and almost all the ponderosa pines were felled and yarded.  The double-headed pine was spared, its trunks too crooked for good timber.

1976.  Two hundred and fifty-three years old.  Responding to the soil disturbance and the bright sunlight on the forest floor, seeds sprouted everywhere in the spring.  A new round in the one-sided race began, and the pine fell farther behind.

 1986.  Two hundred and sixty-three years old.  The pine’s southern top was dying.  Exposed to the sun, its needles lost water at a high rate, and the water could not be replaced.  This was a drought year, like the one before and the one before that.  The densely-packed “doghair” firs took what water there was before it reached the pine, which was not alone in its trouble.  Towering red spires were scattered across the mountains that year, the bodies of dead ponderosas. 

In August, a fast-moving thunderstorm burst over the valley, and a bolt of lightning forked down to ignite the tinder-dry needles of one of these corpses.  The tree flared instantly, and a column of smoke rose into the sky.  In less than two hours, a helicopter appeared from the east and dumped chemicals on the smoldering snag and the nearby brush.  The fire was suppressed.

2001.  Two hundred and seventy-eight years old. Death.   Another drought year.  In September, the hot exhaust pipe of a truck high in the mountains ignited a grass fire.  Driven by a late-summer wind, the fire raced through the thick alien grasses lining the logging road with incredible speed.  Within hours, it had grown to hundreds of acres in size.  The dense dead branches of the crowded firs provided perfect ladders for the flames to climb into the forest canopy.  By the time the fire swept over the saddle and into the valley, it was an inferno, leaping from crown to crown at a runner’s pace.  This year, the helicopters and the planes were already in battle elsewhere.  There was little to stop this fire, and none of it would have been enough.  Fire had never been gone from this landscape for so long.  It returned, as it must.  Long denied, it devoured.  The twin tops of the pine flared incandescent, the arching wishbone outlined in flame.  The pine died, as did all its seeds, and all its offspring.  When everything had burned, the fire died too.

Among the ashes, a thin spine of blackened wood was alone left standing.  It was the pine’s fire-hardened heart, the great tree’s final fire scar.

The author thanks Tom Sensenig of the Bureau of Land Management for sharing his path-breaking research on the fire history of southwestern Oregon, and David Steinfeld and Jeff LaLande of the Forest Service for information on ponderosa pine biology and the human history of the Applegate.