Oregon wildfires threaten Opal Creek, Silver Falls, other beloved natural landmarks

Noble Horvath

Sirens and bullhorns blared before sunrise, stirring people sleeping in tents and cabins nestled into the lush forest of Silver Falls State Park. By the time the sun rose through smoke-filled skies Tuesday morning, the park was completely empty. The quick evacuation came as the Beachie Creek fire encroached from […]

Sirens and bullhorns blared before sunrise, stirring people sleeping in tents and cabins nestled into the lush forest of Silver Falls State Park. By the time the sun rose through smoke-filled skies Tuesday morning, the park was completely empty.

The quick evacuation came as the Beachie Creek fire encroached from the east, quickly spreading on high gusts of wind and catching hold in dry forests. By Wednesday, the fire had reached the park’s perimeter, and on Thursday it began to creep in.

“Anything could happen to the park,” Oregon State Parks spokesman Chris Havel said Thursday. “We’re watching it, but there’s really not much we can do.”

Silver Falls is considered the “crown jewel” of Oregon’s state parks system, with nearly a dozen beautiful waterfalls cascading into a forested canyon east of Salem. To see the park burn would be devastating for many Oregonians, though it’s far from the only natural treasure endangered by fire.

With nearly 50 wildfires burning about 500 square miles of land in Oregon, several beloved natural landmarks are in danger of being burned. Some may already be consumed by flames.

Just east of Silver Falls, the Beachie Creek fire appears to have already passed through Opal Creek, a beautiful natural space known for its crystal-clear waters and old growth forests. The fire started near the confluence of Beachie and Opal creeks, just two miles from Jawbone Flats, a 15-acre section of Opal Creek that’s home to an old mining camp and the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.

Staff at the center evacuated Friday, as smoke filled the air and ash fell from the sky, the organization announced on Facebook. Over the weekend, a crew from the Oregon Department of Forestry cleared debris in the area and hosed down buildings before the fire came through.

“We have no news as to whether Jawbone Flats is burned or safe or anywhere in between,” the Ancient Forest Center wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “Right now, we continue to choose hope.”

Between Opal Creek and Silver Falls are two other natural landmarks threatened by the Beachie Creek fire: Shellburg Falls, which is also within the fire perimeter, and Abiqua Falls, which is less than two miles outside of it.

A little farther east, the Beachie Creek fire has merged with the Lionshead fire, which began on Aug. 16 along the Whitewater River northeast of Mount Jefferson. As winds picked up Monday, the Lionshead fire began to spread west, burning through Jefferson Park, a gorgeous destination on the north side of Oregon’s second tallest peak.

The fire crossed the Pacific Crest Trail and burned deeper into the Willamette National Forest, passing Breitenbush Hot Springs on its way to Detroit Lake.

“At this point unfortunately we have not been able to get a good aerial visual of what that area looks like,” Katy O’Hara, public information officer for the Lionshead fire, said Thursday. “We’re really still in the planning phase of trying to figure out where the fire is at this point.”

O’Hara confirmed that the fire has crossed through Jefferson Park and Breitenbush Hot Springs, but said heavy smoke has prevented aerial crews from getting a good look at the damage. Firefighters so far have been focused on evacuating people and protecting buildings, she said.

WILDFIRE TRACKER: See all fires in Oregon and across the nation

The same is true for natural landmarks burned by the Beachie Creek fire. Joanie Schmidgall, a public information officer for the Willamette National Forest, said while places like Opal Creek are within the fire perimeter, it’s impossible to know the extent of the damage.

“We really don’t know how the fire fared,” Schmidgall said. And while it doesn’t look good, “it doesn’t mean that everything is scorched.”

The old growth forests of Opal Creek might actually fare better than most. With thick bark and high branches, the old Douglas firs are especially fire resistant, Schmidgall said. With any luck, the Beachie Creek fire will be just another in the forest’s long history.

Opal Creek is thought to have survived two previous wildfires, in 1550 and 1835, according to the Ancient Forest Center. Many trees in the area are hundreds of years old, and the oldest, a 270-foot Douglas fir, is thought to be 1,000 years old.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be loss in these natural spaces – there most certainly will be, and it will come with an emotional toll for the Oregonians who have cherished them for generations. Mountains will still stand, waterfalls will still flow, but the landscapes around them may be drastically changed.

And losing natural landscapes will be hard, the devastation of losing family, homes and businesses will be far greater.

“The entire Oregon community is going to have to come together to respond to these fires,” Havel said. “We’re just at the start of this awful journey.”

We don’t yet know their fates, but these are some of the special natural areas endangered by those fires:

Opal Creek Wilderness

Opal Pool’s clear waters can been seen a short hike up from Jawbone Flats in the Opal Creek Wilderness.Molly J. Smith/The Oregonian

OPAL CREEK

The Beachie Creek fire appears to have burned through the entire Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area, including Opal Pool and Jawbone Flats, as well as most of the Opal Creek Wilderness, according to the state’s wildfire map. Known for its old growth forests and beautiful waters, Opal Creek has long been one of the most popular outdoor destinations in the region. The extent of the damage is unknown.

The Beachie Creek fire began in the Opal Creek Wilderness near the confluence of Beachie and Opal creeks, and while it initially sat smoldering for three weeks, heavy winds on Labor Day fanned the fire into a large blaze.

Shellburg Falls

The trail leads behind Shellburg Falls in the Santiam State Forest near Silverton.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

SHELLBURG FALLS

A small, but popular destination south of Silver Falls State Park, Shellburg Falls also appears to be overtaken by the Beachie Creek fire, which crossed Shellburg Creek on Wednesday. The waterfall is a popular destination near Silver Falls State Park.

Jefferson Park

Mount Jefferson in central Oregon with Jefferson Park in the foreground.LC-

JEFFERSON PARK

The Lionshead fire began on the east side of Mount Jefferson but quickly spread west, crossing along the north side of the mountain across Jefferson Park and the Pacific Crest Trail as it burned nearly 110,000 acres. Jefferson Park is a popular backpacking destination, known for its spectacular views of Oregon’s second tallest mountain.

North Falls in Silver Falls State Park

A hiker passes behind North Falls in Silver Falls State Park.Jamie Hale/Staff

SILVER FALLS STATE PARK

The Beachie Creek fire spread rapidly northwest Wednesday, and as of Thursday it had reached the perimeter of Silver Falls State Park. The immensely popular and spectacularly beautiful park is home to nearly a dozen waterfalls, nestled into a forested canyon near Silverton. The sprawling park also contains a campground and several buildings, including a visitor center, lodge, café and conference center.

Abiqua Falls

A group of friends gathers at Abiqua Falls, a popular and beautiful waterfall near Silverton, found at the end of a short hike along Abiqua Creek.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

ABIQUA FALLS

As of Thursday the Beachie Creek fire was a little more than a mile from Abiqua Falls, which sits along Abiqua Creek northeast of Silver Falls State Park. Though not the easiest waterfall to access, Abiqua Falls is popular for its picturesque nature, pouring from a cliff of columnar basalt.

Belknap Covered Bridge

The Belknap Covered Bridge crosses the McKenzie River in Lane County.Terry Richard/The Oregonian

MCKENZIE RIVER

The Holiday Farm fire began along the McKenzie River east of Springfield, quickly growing to nearly 145,000 acres. So far, the fire has swept through several local parks and campgrounds along the river between the communities of Rainbow and Vida, as well as the southern shore of Blue River Lake. Terwilliger Hot Springs, located less than four miles from the fire, appears to be out of the way.

Cascade Head

The view from Cascade Head, a beloved grassy headland astride the Lincoln-Tillamook county line near Lincoln City,
on the Oregon coast.Terry Richard/The Oregonian

CASCADE HEAD

A fire burning north of Lincoln City on the Oregon coast has so far remained small. If it grows and spreads north, it could endanger Cascade Head, a grassy headland with sweeping views that is managed as a wildlife preserve.

— Jamie Hale; [email protected]; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB

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