Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — July 2006

Visiting the Rothrock Fire

by Dave Coleman

The smoke could be seen and even smelled all over the Centre Region. It was the big forest fire of May 1st. The final tally was 410 acres burned — most of it in Rothrock State Forest. During the fire, the area was off limits as firefighters fought the blaze from the ground and the air. But now, anyone can easily view the burned area with a quick drive and a leisurely walk.

deer exclosure in Rothrock

Deer fence exclosure in Rothrock State Forest post forest fire · Photo by Dave Coleman

A short hiking loop can be undertaken that showcases the results of the fire and the recovering forest. From the Treaster Kettle Road (the southern boundary of the fire), almost 3 miles from Bear Meadows Road, park off the road and walk up the logging/staging road a few hundred yards until you come to the staging area where the gravel road forms a rough cul-de-sac. From here you will notice the edges of two deer exclosures — one on the left and one on the right. Go to the one on the left and walk along the fence up the hill. This loop is short and simple; it is only about a mile or so in total length and simply involves walking around the fence exclosure in a counter-clockwise direction.

deer exclosure in Rothrock

Burnt timber from the the Rothrock forest fire · Photo by Dave Coleman

The beginning is the only up hill section of this short loop and makes for a good way to get the blood flowing. You may be tempted to enter the exclosure through one of the several person gates, but walking through the interior will prove to be difficult with all the slash. Slash is the tree tops and branches left over from the timber harvesting. This area — mostly within the exclosure was cut last year and the year before.

By the time you reach the top of the climb, you will be able to see the burnt timber. The fire started near a cabin along Treaster Kettle Road (you may have noticed it and the scorched ground as you drove in) and quickly spread up the side of Tussey Mountain. Although the newspaper accounts cite a fallen electrical service line to the cabin as the cause of the fire, it is still under investigation by the Bureau of Forestry.

scortched cut timber

Scorched slash remains in the hottest area of the fire · Photo by Dave Coleman

Continuing along the fence and moving southwest parallel to the road, you will be going through the heart of the fire zone. This is where the fire was the hottest and spread the most rapidly. You will notice the scorched slash throughout the area. Only the larger limbs of the cut timber remain as the smaller slash was fully consumed by the fire.

Contrary to what the timber industry and their procured politicians would lead the public to believe, timber harvesting rarely, if ever, results in minimizing wild fire potential. To the contrary, removing the shade that the forested canopy provides and leaving dead limb slash increases the fire danger. The forest floor, now exposed to the full sun dries out as does the dead slash. To the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry’s credit, they do not permit whole tree removal — which would leave no fiber for soil replenishment.

Would this fire have been prevented if the timber operation had not been conducted last year? Most likely no, but if it had started, it would not have spread as fast and furious as this one did as it fed on the dry slash that was closely available to the initial sparks.

You will notice new oak trees spouting from the ashes. These are either new sprouts since the fire, or sprouts from roots of smaller trees that were killed by the fire. Outside the deer exclosure, ferns have sprouted where they did before the fire as deer had the opportunity to eat almost everything else outside the protection of the fence.

an oak regenerates

An oak begins regeneration in the Rothrock State Forest · Photo by Dave Coleman

As you make your way back down the west side of the fenced-in area you will find a large oak (about 2 feet in diameter) that was spared from the timber operation – most likely since it has a slight bend halfway up the main trunk. It survived the fire as evidenced by a full crown of leaves on its branches 60 feet or so off the ground. Oak are much more likely to survive a fire than maple or hickory which have thinner barks protecting the living layer of the tree. And of course, the taller and thicker the tree is, the more likely it is to survive the fire.

The fire did spread further southwest from this point, although it did so with less heat and speed as it was heading that way against the wind and out of the recent forest slash area into an area that was clear-cut 10 to 15 years ago. You could follow the bulldozed fire line along the bottom edge of the burn for a half mile or so. The fire lines were not necessarily bulldozed during the initial blaze; most were put in to contain flare ups that could have occurred after the main blaze was extinguished. The forester I talked with indicated that there were some limited back fires set to help contain the hottest portions of the fire.

Continuing along the fence, you will now be heading northeast parallel to the road making your way back towards the car. You will pass the cabin where the fire started. Keep in mind that although the cabin sits
on leased state forest land, the structure is privately owned and you should not go too close. Another quarter mile and you will be back at the staging area road and your car.

This loop can be completed in well under an hour even with a few stops to look at some of the features described above. Small to medium sized gravel and rock will be the walking surface around the fence.

For a longer and more strenuous hike, consider starting at the same point, but scramble up to almost the top of the ridge to Tussey Mountain Trail and turn left, heading southwest to the intersection of Shingle Path (no signs). Turn left and go back down the ridge to the bulldozed fire line or all the way down to the Treaster Kettle Road – either way, turning left again and returning to your car.

If You Go: Take Route 322 East out of State College and turn right at Bear Meadows Road (the entrance to Tussey Mountain Ski Area). Follow Bear Meadows Road a total of 5 miles to the Treaster Kettle Road on the left. (Bear Meadows Road is paved until one and a half miles before this intersection and if you find your self at the Bear Meadows Natural Area, you went a quarter mile too far.)

Follow Treaster Kettle Road for 2.9 miles to the aforementioned logging road which is just a quarter mile past the cabin on the left and a quarter mile before a gas line crossing and a half mile before the intersection with another state forest road.

The Rothrock State Forest public use map can be obtained from the Bureau of Forestry. This loop will be on the very bottom of the Centre Hall quadrangle.

The Moshannon Group web site includes all past On The Trail columns

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Dave Coleman lives in Patton Township and has volunteers for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club as well as the local Moshannon Group. Dave can be reached at dyatesc@aol.com