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The Woodsman: Fire and Water in the Bull Run Watershed

By Steve Wilent

The Woodsman: Fire and Water in the Bull Run Watershed

The Camp Creek Fire in the Bull Run Watershed has drawn the attention of most of us here in the Welches area. Smoke from the fire, which was started by lighting on August 25, has occasionally blanketed our area. Ominous columns of smoke were visible on clear days from Jonsrud Viewpoint on Bluff Road in Sandy, as well as from other vantage points. At this writing on September 17, the fire was five miles northwest of Brightwood, nine miles northwest of Welches, and eight miles northeast of Sandy. The fire had burned 2,055 acres and was 51 percent contained, meaning that the fire is bounded by a road or fire line built by crews. However, “contained” does not mean that there is no danger — depending on the weather, embers can fly over fire lines and start new fires.

Fortunately, there was and is little danger to our communities. The weather has been largely favorable, with relatively light winds, moderate temperatures, and even a bit of rain. More damp weather and lower temperatures are in the offing. We were fortunate that we haven’t had strong winds from the east or northeast that coincided with high temperatures and low humidity. Such conditions, similar to those during the Riverside Fire in 2020, might have driven the fire toward Sandy and the many residences between the city and the fire. It is unlikely that these conditions will arise between now and the heavy fall and winter rains.

Yet even with our typical wet-season drenching, I expect that hot spots will be evident in the spring, where large rotten logs and deep duff have slowly smoldered despite the rain and snow. These hot spots are unlikely to expand into another dangerous fire, but observers will be on hand to make sure they don’t. Protecting Portland’s water supply makes such monitoring a priority.

The 102 square mile watershed is managed jointly by the Portland Water Bureau and the US Forest Service. The Forest Service manages 94 percent of the land in the watershed, with the remainder owned by the City of Portland (5%) and the federal Bureau of Land Management (1%).

A century of logging in the watershed ended in 1996 when Congress passed the Oregon Resources Conservation Act, which banned most timber harvesting in the Bull Run. Mining and even public access to the watershed for recreation also is prohibited. These limits are intended to protect Portland’s water quality.
Today, fire is the main threat to the Bull Run. Given the high annual rainfall in the watershed, fires are rare. However, scientists have found evidence of large, high-severity wildfires in the watershed in 1493, 1663, 1693, 1873, and 1881. The fire in 1493 burned nearly the entire watershed, according to the Water Bureau, while the others averaged about 5,000 acres, or about eight square miles. The Camp Creek Fire has, so far, burned about three square miles. Such relatively small fires have little or no impact on water quality, but after a larger fire, water quality might suffer if ash, sediments, and nutrients are washed into Bull Run streams and reservoirs.

Portland is serious about protecting its water source. So much so that a city ordinance makes it a crime to enter the watershed without permission—doing so is a Class C Misdemeanor that is punishable by a fine or jail time. Entry also is against Forest Service regulations.

I’ve heard stories that horse loggers, in the days before logging in the watershed was banned, were required to fit their horses with diapers. Seems kind of silly, since deer, elk, bear, ducks, and other critters don’t have to wear diapers. Can you imagine a logger wearing a diaper?

Have a question about the Camp Creek Fire? Ever sneak into the watershed without being caught? Let me know. Email:

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