Sisters Country: Shaped by fire
In 1923, fire started in an unattended garage in downtown Sisters. A raging inferno destroyed buildings on Cascade Avenue, consuming businesses and residences, including the Sisters Drug Store and Post Office.
The next year, fire started in a defective flue in the Gist Hotel, destroying buildings on both sides of Cascade Avenue between Fir and Spruce Streets.
Visitors driving into Sisters come face to face with a landscape changed by 13 large wildfires. Since 2002, 43 percent of the Sisters Ranger District has burned.
Crossing Santiam Pass you travel through the 2003 90,000-acre B&B Fire, the largest fire in the history of the Deschutes National Forest. Driving up Road 16 towards Three Creek Lake you pass through the 2013 26,000-acre Pole Creek Fire, which left Sisters under a blanket of smoke for weeks last fall. Many other fire scars are visible from highway viewpoints and hiking destinations.
In the past 10 years (2002-2012), seven times more acres have burned in Sisters than in the previous 100 years (1900-2000). Why? It’s complicated — and has to do with fire suppression, past timber harvest, weather patterns, climate change, insects and disease, and our changing values.
Fire suppression began with European settlement and has changed our forests and how they react to disturbances such as insects and diseases and lightning-caused wildfires. The more fire cycles an area has missed, the more intensely fires may burn.
Recent science finding indicate that our declining snowpacks and earlier snowmelt are closely correlated with more wildfires. Long-term snowpack records from 1940 to 2010 show there has been a decline of 10 percent per decade in the peak amount of snow at Santiam Junction near Sisters.
But all is not devastation — not by any means.
Wildfires leave a complex mosaic with mixtures of dead and live trees. Some areas burn intensely with high mortality, while others are moderately or lightly burned, with many trees surviving. Lighter burns are healthy for forests.
Ecologically there are winners and losers after wildfires. Sisters’ fires have been hard on species such as the northern spotted owl and northern goshawk, which have lost much of their mixed conifer habitat in the past decade. However, Sisters is one of the best places in the world to be a woodpecker.
Many woodpecker species feed on beetles colonizing dead trees and create cavities for other tree-nesting birds.
Just as the town of Sisters rebuilt after devastating fires, the countryside, too, is recovering in an endless cycle.
Maret Pajutee, Sisters Ranger District Ecologist, contributed significantly to this story. Pole Creek Fire photo by Brent McGregor.