One Year After the Substation Fire On The Deschutes

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One Year After the Substation Fire On The Deschutes

By: Mark Bachmann

In mid-July of 2018 driven by strong winds the Substation range fire traveled about 18-miles the first day.  Five days later it had burnt up about 80,000 acres of Central Oregon, including about 25-miles of lower Deschutes River Canyon. It seems that catastrophic fires and floods are regular events on desert rivers. These events seem to run in natural, but unpredictable cycles and have a lot to do with giving the landscape its unique personality.

In the forty plus years that I have been fishing the lower Deschutes River there have been several range fires. However, the Substation Fire was the largest and most destructive that I have witnessed. The loss of the water tower at Harris Canyon and the ranch house at Ferry Canyon are man-made historical treasures that probably won’t ever be replaced. But they were no more or less valuable that the various wooden railroad trestles at Wagonblast and other side canyons that were consumed by range fires in the past. Depending on one’s perspective, range fires have a way of destroying the record of man’s accomplishments, and/or cleaning up his garbage.

The summer of 2018 was the most difficult test that we have ever experienced at trying to keep customers comfortable while camping out amid torrents of wind-blown dust and ashes. The groves of trees in camps we have manicured for decades as shade and windbreaks disappeared in the holocaust. They are still gone. Clients tents are now in direct sun at mid-day, which has interfered with that best of all Deschutes Camp traditions, the “Afternoon Siesta”. But there is no blowing ashes or dirt. The desert grasses and weeds have prospered from the shot of nutrients the ashes gave them and the soil is covered once again. The trees that provided the shade are growing again as well.

The wild turkey population has exploded in the lower Deschutes River Canyon. Every night several adult and juvenile birds roosted in the grove of fire killed trees that reside in our favorite camp. At late twilight they would sail into camp from across the river, then ascend into the trees at the camp parameter, spend the night, and then leave in the gathering light of early morning. We have been fishing this part of the Deschutes River Canyon since the early 1970’s and never saw a wild turkey here before 2016. It appears that that the population is reproducing and expanding. Like the reintroduction of big horn sheep, the turkeys give the canyon another dimension.

The fire seems to have had no ill effect on the wild trout population in the lower Deschutes River. Every morning and evening trout are actively rising to hatches and/or spinner falls of egg laying mayflies, caddis and midges. Are these hatches as dense as they were before the flow regime changed at Pelton Dam ten years ago? I don’t think so, but the trout population seems to have adapted. If you were into it, trout fishing would be very good, but everyone is steelhead fishing this time of year.

Steelhead are still here, although in depressed numbers. Columbia River dam counts are dismal. No doubt the Deschutes River steelhead runs are the lowest in recent history. We are catching a few though, even though howling evening winds and water temperatures averaging round 67-68 degrees at dark have been the rule. Fishing has been better in the early morning when water temperatures have been around 62-degrees. The water in the Deschutes is very clear this year with an average of six feet of visibility. Smaller flies have produced better than larger ones.

Evergreen black berries continue to be the largest single hazard to the natural environment in the Deschutes River Canyon. These vicious-stickered noxious weeds were brought to North America from Central Asia because of the fruit they produce. Anyone who has eaten black berry jelly would know why. The fruit is very tasty, and the plant proved to be hardy, too hardy in fact nearly impossible to control. Before the “Wild and Scenic” designation black berries were mostly kept under control in the Deschutes Canyon by livestock. Since the removal of the livestock, black berries have taken over huge tracts of riparian real estate making it nearly impossible to access parts of the river by hiking. During the past ten years the problem has become more and more insidious. Black berries became interlaced through many of the edge-water alders, most of which were planted by private citizens without permits, but with the best of intentions. These alder hedges interlaced with black berries made an impenetrable barrier often stretching for hundreds of yards. Then came the Substation fire and cleaned the whole mess up (but temporarily). Black berry vines apparently are highly flammable, and all were burnt to the surface of the soil. They were totally were then exposed to human intervention and chemical extermination. This fact was brought to the attention of BLM management who oversee the wild and scenic waterways. The problem is that these folks would rather control boaters than invasive weeds.

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