Photographic Beauty In Burned Forests
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It’s been a few years since I have written about the topic of photographing burned forests. The blog article Life After Fire – Wildfires and Landscape Photography was written once I had a chance to get into parts of the Columbia River Gorge after the devastating Eagle Creek wildfire. That fire really hit home for me as someone that grew up very close to where the fire started and have spent time in Columbia River Gorge since I was born. After the Eagle Creek fire I was sure we would have a reprieve from such devastation for a while. It was 2019, I was wrong.
2020 came and while all know that as the year the Covid pandemic changed our lives, it’s also the year of destructive forest fires coming close to Portland and burning many other spectacularly beautiful forested locations in Oregon. It was another tough pill to swallow. This came with a very hazardous air quality index (AQI) score off the charts for many parts of Oregon, including Portland. 2021 didn’t see near the destruction and smoke-filled days around here as 2020, thankfully. Yet in 2021 we did venture into some deeply scarred and burned forest for a family trip. It was actually a trip we planned to a remote primitive cabin in 2020 that was canceled when the Lionshead Fire showed up a couple weeks before our expected adventure.
This trip took us into the Mount Hood National Forest. Despite the area being severely burned and all hiking trails closed, we wanted to get up there anyway. We figured the trip was mostly to be off the grid for games, reading, and relaxing… with of course time in Olallie Lake if Mother Nature brought us warm sunshine. I very much looked at this as a real opportunity to see what spending four full days in a completely torched landscape would yield photography wise. I have of course photographed areas impacted by forest fires, yet this was more continuous time in one burnt place than I had been before. I was eager to see what would come of it.
As we made our way to the cabin we could see the completely torched and burned forests miles in advance of our destination. The complete landscape of gray and black with dark tall matchstick like tree trunks swaying about that I am sure many will come crashing down in the months and years ahead. It was a depressing sight. My last drive up to this area was in September 2019 for a backpacking trip. Little did I know then that only a year later large swathes of this forest land would be burned. We continued our drive through the winding and dusty forest service road to get to the cabin. Our four day trip without wi-fi, screens, or cell reception had started.
One advantage this trip brought was a break from busy outdoor locations. With many campgrounds, trails, and roads still closed in the area, there was less traffic than one might see during a typical summer pre-fire. Even the popular Pacific Crest Trail goes through here and it was closed. Like most people I was interested in hiking these trails to see what is out there. Yet hearing them creak and moan more than an average forest reminded me why they are closed. While we are never immune to being in a forest when a tree can fall (I have seen one fall first hand in a healthy green forest) the tipsy unbalanced burned tree trunks need time to either be sure they can continue to stand a while longer, or come crashing down to ground level. All the photos here were taken along the limited open trails or close to the roads I was wandering. The long hike into the forest would wait for another trip when the trails open back up.
It was one of the more relaxing times I had photography wise, not to mention more successful than I expected from a creative standpoint. When I wasn’t busy hanging out with the family I spent a fair bit of time walking the areas I had available to me. From close up abstracts to landscape scenes, there was a lot of interest and beauty in what at first blush looked like a view to only be depressed about. There was a pleasant calmness and serenity as I meandered around with my camera gear, inspired to take more photographs than I expected.
This is our new reality. We can expect to see burned forests more than prior generations due to both climate change and past forest management decisions. With this change I am choosing to embrace what that means to my photography and the artistic beauty it brings. If I would have been here a year earlier all of these photos would be dramatically different, and in some cases not even be possible, as the forest was still a vibrant green. While I would prefer the evergreen forest I am a glass half full kind of guy usually looking for the positive. That positive is the chance to continue to engage with the landscape in a meaningful way. Creating photos that viewers can appreciate and connect with as the land works through its healing and recovery process. In most cases we know that even if forests like these return to a tall stand of thick evergreens, it likely will be fully experienced by those that have yet to start their life in this world. The rest of us will only see the early stages of forest rebirth.
Tips for visiting and photographing burned forest locations:
Closures - Very often areas impacted by fire will open gradually. Be prepared that you might only be able to visit certain spots in the area you are going. For example this trip I was only able to view the forest from the open road, around the cabin, and paddling the lake. All except one short trail was closed to the public.
Weather - Heavily forested areas that once provided protection from sun, light rain, and other weather conditions will no longer offer that. A hike that was once cool temperature wise from the evergreen forest might be hot with little to no shade protection. Put your sunscreen in your camera bag.
Increased Awareness - It can take many years after a major fire before the ground, burned hillsides, left over trees, etc full stabilize to pre-fire level. If you are in these areas during the early stages and experience conditions such as high winds or heavy rain, it may not be a place to hang out and photograph.
Blank Canvas - Instead of looking at the area as a depressing scene. Look at it as the start of something new. The beginning of a whole new forest that you are getting the chance to witness and explore photographically.
Warm Colors - A mature healthy forest usually consists of shades of green during spring and summer for deciduous trees and of course all year for most evergreens. A forest after a forest fire now showcases increased oranges and reds on the trees that I might describe more like rust colored. Pair these with the glow of the sun and it can really make a wonderful photo for the right scene.
Black and Gray - From a distance we see this black scarred landscape that looks lifeless. Up close there are endless shades of black and gray to be photographed. Another aspect that will only remain for a while before new growth takes over.