Oregon Photographer Unveils New Ways of Looking at Burned Forests

Ralph Bloemers, co-founder of the Crag Law Center, has been documenting the aftermath of Oregon wildfires since 2017. He started with the Eagle Creek Fire which burned in the Columbia River Gorge, setting up remote cameras. His goal was to show people the beauty of life returning to these areas.   

“You can show the plants coming back, and the elk and the deer and bear and the cougar and everything else that loves that highly burned landscape after it starts to regrow,” said Bloemers. “And just by showing that to people, it’s kind of undeniable the beauty and life that can be found there.”  

Using a combination of time lapse and motion-sensing cameras, Bloemers has managed to capture the return of elk, bobcats and mountain lions, among other forest-dwelling wildlife. He’s also taken time-lapse footage of plants growing and flourishing in the charred landscapes. It’s taken some trial and error, and a few cameras knocked down by bears, but Bloemers has accumulated an impressive array of footage.  

Bloemers has put up cameras in numerous locations around Oregon — places like the site of the Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood which burned in 2011, the site of the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire in the Santiam Canyon and Willamette National Forest, the 2017 Abney and Burnt Peaks Fires and the 2018 Spencer Fire in the Siskiyou Mountains. 

“I wanted to capture the wildlife that was there and the rebirth, the recovery of the natural landscape,” said Bloemers. “Instead of telling people that they’re OK, I wanted to show them.”   

Oregon State University ecosystems ecologist J. Boone Kauffman studies and teaches the effects of natural disturbances such as wildfires, and his research about the role of wildfires in forests across the Northwest explains a lot of the adaptations and dynamics that Bloemers’ images make apparent.  

For example, douglas fir trees possess a very thick bark that often protects them from fires, but for trees that do perish in fires, they provide nourishment for insects that woodpeckers love to eat.  

In addition, most species are able to survive fires by running or flying away, or even by taking shelter under water or soil, the latter of which provides sufficient insulation for survival even during extreme conditions. Kauffman said that there is usually a fairly low mortality rate of wildlife during fires because they’ve evolved and adapted to them — some even depend on fires.   

“There’s a number of species that only exist right after a fire, that produce seeds that will lay dormant in a forest for as long as 250 years,” said Kauffman. “And it requires fire, heat from a fire, to stimulate germination of the seed.”  

According to Kauffman’s research findings, even the most severe fires typically burn less than 10% of the forest biomass above ground, and while a fire might kill trees, it doesn’t burn much of the wood, which can go on to store carbon and provide valuable salmon habitat in streams in the form of debris.  

“One of the classic features of Pacific Northwest streams is tremendous quantities of large woody debris in the streams,” said Kauffman. “A lot of the gravels and sands that ultimately end up in the rivers and creeks are from these fire events, and so they can be very important sources of sediment that in the long run is utilized by species such as salmon.”  

Kaufmann added that through such interplays, we witness a beautiful cycle of life.  

“Virtually all species, whether they’re fungus like mushrooms or plants or birds, they all have adaptations to survive fire or to live at some level of the succession from the first years following fire to old growth, hundreds of years following fire,” he said. “It may look horrible to us in the first few months or years after fire, but in the long run they’re providing very integral features to the structure, function and dynamics of these ecosystems.”  

Bloemers compared burned forests, which he hopes his photography can encourage people to enjoy in new ways, to charcoal forests — teeming with brown and gray and black in the beginning, but essentially a blank canvas that will be painted green again.  

“I hope [people] will see [a burned forest] not as a destroyed thing but a young thing full of potential,” he said.   

By Jalen Todd