It helps to look at the 2017 conflagration in a broader scope of time. Which is why I headed into the woods with Lisa Ellsworth, a fire ecologist at Oregon State University. On a warm morning in August 2018, we hike along the Pacific Crest Trail outside Cascade Locks, Oregon, a few miles east of Eagle Creek. Trees all around us have burned trunks. Scorched limbs dot the forest floor; among them, new ferns are flourishing, even in the dry depths of an August drought. Ellsworth exults over one clump. "They're looking good," she says, "and these snags"—she gestures to some charred, dead, branchless but still-standing trees nearby—"they'll provide a good home for woodpeckers and flycatchers. After that, you'll get secondary cavity dwellers— songbirds, small mammals. Debris is coming down off the slopes, sure, but erosional processes created the gorge. They were here long before humans came and messed with the system. And when debris washes into the streams, it'll be good for salmon."
A former wildland firefighter, Ellsworth has studied fires for two decades and sees nothing unusual about the one that swept through the gorge. Indeed, when it comes to describing the fire's impact on the forest, she takes umbrage at the extreme labels it's been given—devastating, catastrophic.
For the woods, the fire was a routine and necessary event. It was the forest purifying itself. "The fire burned the ladder fuels here," she tells me, explaining that no fallen limbs are left to carry tree-killing flames up to the crown of the forest. "We won't have to worry about another fire right here for a long time."
While no adult living now will ever see the gorge as thickly forested as it was in 2016, the fire killed less than 15 percent of the canopy within the burn area, and the most severe burning happened primarily at higher elevations. (Fire tends to travel up ridgelines.) "It would be nice to get people out here to see that the forest isn't all burned up," Ellsworth says. "We have to change public perception."
So far, few people have ventured deep into the forest to see the burn up close. Ellsworth and I cross paths with just a handful of long-distance backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail. It feels like we're in on a secret, beholding the new life and beauty that abide in a burned forest. We reach Dry Creek Falls, two miles from the road, and then walk back mostly in silence, admiring a patch of purple fireweed that has sprouted in the scorched soil, then a tree that gave up all its lower branches to the flames. Its crown is still green. "That tree has protected itself from the next fire," Ellsworth marvels. "It's got resilience."