Stream and Wetland Restoration After the Pike Road Fire

One of the homes that was saved from the Pike Road Fire thanks to the tireless effort of local fire crews.

October 30, 2020, Bay City, OR — High on a ridgeline overlooking the Kilchis River Valley, Clair Thomas and a team of volunteers are getting a tour of the private lands damaged in September’s Pike Road Fire. From this perspective about half of the 400-acre burn is visible. One can only imagine the effort it took to save the handful of homes that dot the landscape. Over 200 professionals and volunteers came to this neighborhood’s rescue, working night and day from the late September 7th until the rains arrived a week later. Thomas and his fellow Watershed Council members have come to the aid of private landowners to help repair the damage done in and around salmon-bearing streams and spring-heads that make up the headwaters of Vaughn Creek, a tidal tributary of the Kilchis River. The Tillamook Bay Watershed Council (TBWC) has worked with local landowners to improve fish habitat in Vaughn Creek since the non-profit’s founding in 1998.

“In the past our work has been mainly down in the flood plain, where there were a number of barriers to fish migration,” says Thomas, referring to undersized and/or failing culverts that blocked salmon and trout from migrating in and out of the watershed. “Getting to work in the headwaters of Vaughn Creek is pretty cool–we’re getting to see a lot of interesting habitats that are often overlooked.”

Looking down one of the fire lines where exposed soils are already eroding rapidly, delivering fine sediment into Vaughn Creek.

The Pike Road Fire was one of dozens of fires sparked across Tillamook County by downed powerlines during the intense east winds of the Labor Day 2020 storm. Within minutes the fire spread in multiple directions, and by 1:00 AM on September 8th, local neighborhoods were being evacuated. Fire crews and local heavy-equipment operators immediately went to work cutting fire-lines and defending homes that stood amidst the blaze. The tireless efforts of fire and emergency personnel–along with dozens of loggers, farmers and local contractors who instinctively rushed to their neighbors’ aid–was nothing short of heroic. Every home was saved, and the residents of Idaville and Bay City were reminded how strong their community could be under pressure.

“We’re going to drop down along this trail to the creek and spread seed on the disturbed areas,” Thomas says to his crew, pointing down a steep grade into a dense stand of scorched alders and hemlocks. “Our goal here is to prevent erosion of the soils and excess sedimentation in Vaughn Creek.”

The crew makes its way into the deep canyon, hand-spreading grass seed donated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They leave the trail and follow tracks of deer and elk to the stream bottom. Here the blackened trunks of living trees stand among hundreds of scorched and wind-fallen ones, making the going difficult. Grasses and ferns are already sprouted and flourishing where their pre-fire foliage was burned to stubble.

One of the burned out gullies above Vaughn Creek, already showing signs of life after a few days of rain.

“It’s pretty incredible seeing these ferns popping up here, just weeks after the fire,” says TBWC volunteer and local historian Charles Wooldridge. He crouches low to snap a photo of the vibrant green bracken and sword ferns popping up all around him. “It looks like a lot of the larger trees might make it, too.”

Later in the day, and a bit further downstream, the crew comes to a wetland and spring head that is quickly becoming inundated with fine sediment. As rain falls gently from a passing shower, Thomas explains how seeding the exposed soils surrounding this site will help prevent mud from washing down across the yard and driveway below, while also protecting water quality in Vaughn Creek.

“This is a place where we can not only seed the area, but also come back and plant native vegetation to enhance the wetland,” Thomas explains. “Thankfully we have access to an amazing source of locally produced trees, shrub and forbs at the NORP nursery.”

He is referring to the Northwest Oregon Restoration Partnership (NORP), a local non-profit nursery program that collects and cultivates seed from native plants in the area. The NORP nursery at Camp Tillamook is the primary source of native plants used in habitat restoration projects throughout the Tillamook Bay watershed. The nursery produces over 50,000 plants each year for local projects, and thanks to grants and labor from its many partner-organizations, NORP can offer those plants to watershed councils at a reduced price. In fact, the TBWC can get plants for as little as $1 apiece, as long as the Councils members volunteer at least 18 hours to NORP every year.

“This is a small project for our watershed council,” Thomas says, “But it’s a chance to show our support for local landowners, who also happen to be our neighbors and friends. We are a tightknit community.”

Clair Thomas (left) and Charles Wooldridge (right) raking in grass seed along a forest road above Murphy Creek, another Kilchis River tributary where the TBWC crew is working to minimize erosion.

The TBWC is actively seeking members who share its mission to preserve and enhance the Tillamook Bay watershed. Members are asked to attend one meeting a month, usually held on the late Tuesday of the month from 6:00PM to 8:00PM. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the TBWC is suspending in-person meetings and its Science by the Bay speaker series, but it hopes to resume meetings with social distancing in January 2021. For more information on becoming a volunteer or Council member, email the TBWC at: tillamookbaywatershedcouncil@gmail.com or call 503-523-8387.

Sword ferns rise from the ashes of the Pike Road fire, a hopeful sign of nature’s regenerative power.

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