The seaweed growing on tide pool rocks at Ecola Point looked liked it had been dipped in bleach, the vibrant green tendrils fading to a dull peachy hue at the tips.
A group touring rocky shoreline sites near Cannon Beach stopped for a closer look.
“Is this because of the fires?” one woman wondered. “Because of all the ash that fell in the water?”
Wildfires raged across the West Coast over Labor Day and in the weeks beyond, burning up more than a million acres in Oregon and leveling entire towns. In some counties, evacuation orders only just lifted this week.
A chemical change in the ocean caused by an influx of wildfire ash is probably not the reason for the discolored seaweed, said Burke Hales, a professor and researcher with Oregon State University who specializes in the study of chemical interactions between living things and the ocean environment.
He theorizes that a more likely culprit is the unnatural daytime darkness created by the clouds of smoke and ash that blanketed the North Coast in a noxious, yellow-orange smog for days while the fires burned elsewhere. Seaweed, like any plant, needs sunlight.
Gov. Kate Brown called the fires — fueled by a fatal cocktail of climate change-related conditions, lightning and wind, forest management practices, human blunders and, in a few instances, alleged arson — a “wake-up call” to the need to tackle climate change.
The fires did not touch Clatsop County directly. Though smaller fires hit near Tillamook and Lincoln City, no one in Clatsop County faced even the possibility of evacuation. But with wildfire seasons expected to increase in intensity in the West under climate change, the September blazes could be a taste of what is to come.
The North Coast is not immune, though the impacts this year were less obvious.
Firefighters from local stations traveled east to help contain blazes but were later kept to sites closer to the coast in case they needed to be called back for local fires. Coastal timberland managers watched fire updates over the Labor Day weekend with growing trepidation.
At the height of the fires, smoke plumes flowed from hot spots toward the ocean, leading officials to issue air quality advisories even for the coast. Ash flecked car windshields in Astoria. During a week when the weather was forecast to be sunny and warm, the curtain of smoke and ash above made for chilly, dreary and dark days below. Few people ventured out. Even the birds were silent.
Then there were the more subtle impacts, like the sunlight-starved seaweed visible to human eyes only at low tide. Other environmental effects, many still unknown, could eventually find their way here.
Ben Walczak, a district biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has no idea if spring Chinook in the North Willamette Watershed District spawned successfully. Due to the fires in and around that watershed, the state did not send people out to walk streams like usual to collect spawning data.
Salmon that originate from the Clackamas and Sandy river areas located in this watershed return there as adults via the Columbia River. As they arrive offshore, cross the Columbia River Bar and begin their journeys home, these salmon help fuel local commercial and recreational fisheries. They feed local predators and are an important part of the estuarine ecosystem even though they are passing through.
Now, even if the adult salmon succeeded in spawning, their offspring will emerge from the gravel in roughly three months. Walczak isn’t sure what kind of an environment they will encounter. There are burned slopes with nothing on them, an unstable environment that will become even more unstable when winter rains begin.
He knows from past fires how debris can flow off a burned landscape, choke streams and suffocate fish, or plug culverts on roads, blocking fish passage.
Fishery managers say it is too early to understand the full impact of the fires on many runs of Oregon and Washington state salmon. Some hatcheries, facing evacuation and rapidly approaching fires, released juveniles early.
Meanwhile, the ocean is a big place with its own set of dangers, challenges and ever-shifting conditions to weather. When the salmon heading out now return as adults several years later, it could be hard to parse out what role the fires may have played on their numbers.
Beyond salmon runs, there are larger implications.
Where entire watersheds burned, there is now the immediate danger of erosion this winter, slides that could choke streams and send debris cascading down streams to rivers and finally to the ocean, Hales and other researchers with Oregon State University say.
The bare landscapes are a new vulnerability that could persist for years. How all of this plays out over time as wildfire seasons become longer and more intense is not clear, but the aftermath of such fires may eventually affect the chemistry of rivers and likely the ocean.
“It’s one of those things where if you drop an anvil off of a building, you know it’s going to hit the sidewalk, but we haven’t quite observed that impact yet,” Hales said. “Even though it is certain to have some huge variety of impacts, some of which might counteract each other, we haven’t really seen it hit.”
Regarding smoke, research is scant when it comes to the possible effect of a large amount of wildfire ash dumping into marine ecosystems off the coast.
Even when major fires are underway it is rare to have a wind event that drives a plume out over the ocean that is concentrated enough or large enough to be worth studying — or even able to be studied. However, in places where such events are more common — where winds come off the Sahara Desert, for example, and drive particles oceanward or on volcanic islands where eruptions layer the waves with ash — researchers have seen positive effects.
Positive, that is, for certain organisms. Such plumes can provide important nutrients that all plants — on the land or in the ocean — need but that may be hard to come by. The result: phytoplankton blooms.
“Then the presumption is that sort of fuels the whole food web and it works its way up,” Hales said.
This recent event is a bit different.
Volcanic ash is mineral ash. Scientists know of the benefits it can bring to marine ecosystems. But what was raining down on Hales’ house north of Corvallis looked like campfire ash, benefits on ocean creatures unknown.
The wildfires — though devastating — were finite. They released all the carbon stored in the burned trees in a very short time into the atmosphere. But the ocean is vast and atmospheric carbon dioxide mixes fairly rapidly through the atmosphere overall, Hales noted, which could dilute any local oceanic effect.
For now, a major, measurable chemical change in the nearshore ocean and its inhabitants is unknown — and Hales expects unlikely in terms of the impact of the smoke alone. There may be small, temporary local effects in more contained areas like bays, however.
The absence of light remains important and more immediate.
“You can talk about what nutrients phytoplankton need all day long but they also need light,” Hales said.
The lives of phytoplankton are measured in days, not years, and a week of darkness would mean a great deal to these organisms that form an important part of a long and complex food chain.
For natural resource sectors, the fires raised other questions and concerns.
GreenWood Resources, a timber company with large holdings in Clatsop County, had about 10 acres burn in the Lincoln City fires. It is a loss Mark Morgans, area manager for the company’s Lewis and Clark Timberlands, considers so minor compared to the damage elsewhere in the state that he is reluctant to even mention it.
Still, that fire and the threat of the ever-shifting Labor Day weekend fires were a reminder that the North Coast is never exempt from this type of danger.
It also makes Morgans think of what he saw following the 2007 storm. That storm hit the coast with gale force winds, leveling thousands of acres of trees from Astoria to Newport, with most of the damage concentrated in Clatsop County.
On land Morgans helped manage at the time, it took nearly three years to pick up the downed timber on 12,000 acres. They drew operators from far beyond the county, from northern Washington and southern Oregon, to help clean up the trees. The wood they salvaged flooded the market. Storm damage meant many trees could not be processed for their intended uses.
The 2007 storm and its aftermath can offer only so many hints to what might happen next. There are several things Morgans can predict with some certainty, however.
There is likely not the logging contractor capacity to meet demand, which could impact local operations. Mills across the state that process timber and nurseries that supply seedlings for replanting operations may face their own shortages and challenges. The work of clearing and replanting burned land will take years.
“We’re going to be living with this for a couple of decades,” Morgans said.