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Once-lush McHugh Creek trails were transformed by July's wildfire

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 25, 2016
  • Published August 24, 2016

Andy Baker's favorite place was McHugh Creek. After July's intense fire, it is dramatically different.

He's been investigating the burned landscape like a detective, sending long emails to Chugach State Park officials with his theories about how the fire started and the potential environmental impact of firefighters' methods. I climbed with him on a sunny day last week to hear his theories.

It was one way to deal with the devastation.

Old, tall spruce trees on the mountainside just south of Anchorage once framed shining vistas of Turnagain Arm from trails that zigzag up the slope toward Rabbit Lakes and McHugh Peak. Grasses, berry bushes and the broad, geometric leaves of devil's club plants used to border the paths.

Andy Baker surveys the scene of the McHugh fire in mid-August. The McHugh fire started in mid-July 2016. It burned over hundreds of acres of Chugach State Park and threatened several structures. (Charles Wohlforth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Some of that remains. But a mile or so up the trail there are spots where the 800-acre fire burned through the trunks of some big spruce trees—trees that were already large when Anchorage was founded. The ground itself burned away, down through the brush, roots and soil to clay.

In heavily burned areas, the trail disappeared. Black, tortured shapes of scorched wood emerge from gray slopes buried deep in powdery ash.

The McHugh/Rabbit Lakes Trail and Homestead Trail are posted as closed after Mile 1. Signs ask hikers to stay away until natural plant succession can stabilize soil vulnerable to erosion. The Turnagain Arm Trail is open, but was burned from Mile 3.8 to Mile 4.8.

For the past 10 years, Baker has come here frequently. In the summer he comes every week. A lot of people used these trails. Thirty minutes from the city, evening sunshine off the water would warm your face after a tough day at work.

"We live in Alaska, but it can be so stressful," Baker said. "But I come up here, into this timeless forest, and I think, 'Yeah, this is why I live in Alaska.'"

He is an engineer who specializes in advanced alternative energy installations. His best known project is a heat pump system at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward that extracts energy from Resurrection Bay water to warm the building.

In May, state Division of Forestry firefighters stopped a fire along the Homestead Trail after it burned 3 acres. Baker went to investigate and found a burn barrel near the trail, similar to a campground fire pit, where the fire started on private land. A stone fire ring was nearby.

"I always thought of this as a rainforest," he said. But the May fire happened after three low-snow winters, early springs and dry, hot weather. "It made me realize how flammable that forest was. Imagine a bit of wind and a fire, and kaboom."

Andy Baker surveys the scene of the McHugh fire in mid-August standing on top of rocks colored with flame retardant. The McHugh fire started in mid-July 2016. It burned over hundreds of acres of Chugach State Park and threatened several structures. (Charles Wohlforth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Turnagain Arm holds the northernmost pocket of the coastal rainforest that grows big spruce trees all the way down to Oregon. Rainforest trees grow large because conditions are normally too wet for fire.

But McHugh Creek doesn't look like a rainforest now. In today's climate, the forests on Turnagain Arm are tinder dry on many summer days.

"It will burn, it's just that conditions have to line up," said Norm McDonald, fire management officer for the division. With the fire season starting a month earlier, and ending a month later than when his career began, the probability of those conditions is much higher than it used to be before the climate changed.

"I'm sure that all ties into it. These fuels had a lot of time to get dry," he said.

On July 17, Baker was returning from San Francisco when he realized his flight would probably approach Anchorage from the east.

"Turnagain Arm," he said. "Oh yeah! I might see McHugh Creek. And there it was. On fire."

McDonald said crews who got to the fire first took photographs of its early spread. Using those images, investigators traced the source, a campfire with garbage deep in the McHugh Creek gully. They have hoped someone would come forward with information about the culprits.

Whoever started the fire chose a strange spot to camp, away from breezes and views. They may have wanted to avoid detection.

The fire roared up the mountain. While fire conditions were extreme, it threatened neighborhoods in Rainbow and Potter Valley. Fire agencies brought in bombers with retardant chemicals, allowing crews on the ground to attack the fire.

The fight cost an estimated $6.3 million, said Tim Mowry, of the forestry division. By comparison, the entire state park system will get only $2.7 million from the unrestricted general fund this year (more comes from fees and grants).

Orange retardant still coats the area. It shriveled the leaves of surviving plants. McDonald said that damage will be gone next year, as the fertilizer-based chemical encourages growth. He also expects no lasting harm from the aerial dumping of seawater on the fire, as Baker worried. McDonald said using salt water is a common practice in California.

Area Ranger Tom Crockett is still assessing the damage higher on the McHugh/Rabbit Lakes Trail. He would like to open the route if it can be made safe. But parts of the trail were obliterated and there isn't a clear source of money to rebuild it. And Crockett thinks big landslides could still come.

Baker was worried about all this, as he expressed in his emails, always politely and amply backed with documentation. McDonald said he read the messages. But he thinks the issues are simpler. The climate has changed and some people are careless with fire.

For Baker, it seemed to me, the details helped cope with a change that will affect many of us for years to come. This lovely place will not be the same in our lifetimes, or perhaps ever, as the ecosystem adapts to a new pattern of temperature and humidity and more common fires.

In the spring, shoots will rise, and possibly morel mushrooms, which come in the ashes the year after a fire. Baker said he will keep hiking for that.

"I want to see how it recovers," he said. "It will be a novelty, at least for a while."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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