What A Scientist Lost In The Eagle Creek Fire

Nov 1, 2017
Originally published on November 1, 2017 4:42 pm

Johanna Varner’s trip to Oregon in October was a shot in the dark. But she hadn’t planned it that way.

In fact, she’d planned her trip months in advance.

Varner was returning to the same sites in the Columbia River Gorge that she's visited every year since 2010. She left temperature sensors there for her research on pikas, a small rabbit-like animal typically found at higher elevations. 

The pikas in the Gorge are special. They live at the lowest elevation for pikas anywhere in the country. Her temperature sensors were keeping track of the unique microclimates the pikas were inhabiting in the Gorge.

Then the Eagle Creek Fire set more than 48,000 acres of the Gorge ablaze. At just 50 percent containment as of Oct. 21, the fire has made it dangerous for scientists and even the firefighters to get into certain areas of the Gorge.

“That shifted my priorities for the week a little bit," said Varner.

Varner spent her trip making phone calls and hearing back from officials about common post-fire risks like landslides, rockslides and fallen trees exacerbated by rain and cooler temperatures. 

“Even our own Forest Service team has been told to hold off," said Rachel Pawlitz, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. "Even our trained emergency responders did not do as much trail reconnaissance work as they would’ve normally done because the risks are too high and we don’t want to put people in harm’s way.

“We’ve had a really good safety record with this fire.”

Varner said she understood the risks, and that she had a good sense that she wouldn’t be able to get into the Gorge. But the temperature sensors were running out of memory, which would create gaps in her data.

“One of the things we really don’t have a good handle on is how the changing frequency and severity of wildfires is going to affect the suitability of habitat for pikas,” Varner said.

“If we wait until next year, it’s impossible to tell whether or not they were there all along or whether they came back.”

The Mystery Of A Place Changed 

When the fire first erupted, Varner sat in her office at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado, obsessively refreshing the hashtag “#EagleCreekFire” on Twitter.

She wanted any new information she could get about the extent of the fire, what was predicted to happen and where it had moved.

“When people post flyover maps or flyover video footage, I’ll sit there and obsessively look for where my sites are in relation to that,” she said.

The devastation had her floored. For her research, Varner had spent 6 to 8 weeks in the Gorge at a time, staying in one place for a long time, paying close attention to small details.

Varner spent a few hours sitting and processing what was happening to a place that she had grown to know all too well.

That afternoon, she had a hard time delivering an enthusiastic lecture about the structure of DNA to her Biology 101 students.

“When you pay attention at that really close level … but really sit there and really get to know a place, and really get to know the plants and animals that live in that place, I think that that can allow for a really powerful and emotional connection to a place,” Varner said. 

It was déjà vu. In 2011, the Dollar Lake Fire ravaged her research sites on Mount Hood. 

“I just sat down on a rock and had myself a really good cry,” she said. 

This time, Varner managed to hold onto a speck of optimism. The pikas on Mount Hood seemed to be more resilient than she’d expected after the 2011 fire.

In her last few days in Oregon, Varner drove through Cascade Locks looking for a good spot to possibly catch a glimpse of her research sites with her binoculars.

She was unsuccessful. She left for home without knowing how her research sites had fared.

“As scientists, we look at the world objectively and we try to remove ourselves from the equation,” Varner said.

“But when you spend that much time in a place, especially a place that’s as special as the Gorge, it’s really difficult not to feel a personal connection to it. So it’s still kind of painful to see it change in this way.”

The U.S. Forest Service estimates it won’t open closed portions of the Gorge until spring 2018. It conducted risk assessments for its own personnel and also scientists to spell out under what circumstances it might allow people back into the Gorge to do their work.

“There is something that the Gorge has going in its favor,” said Pawlitz. “The fact that it is so wet, which creates some of these hazards also means the vegetation is going to grow back more quickly.”

For now, Varner says she’ll figure out how to account for her missing data points.

“I’m somebody who likes a challenge,” Varner said.

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