Fighting fire with fire - Though risky, prescribed burns help prevent wildfires, officials say.

Statesman Journal

June 18, 2002

WILLAMINA — Even when conditions seem right, inducing fires on forestland to reduce the risk of wildfires is a risky business.

But forest managers in Oregon have been taking that risk in recent weeks, hoping to save the state from the kind of destruction sowed by the raging wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico.

Conditions were prime for burning one day last week as a group of forest workers gathered on the shoulder of a hill to supervise a prescribed burn a few miles northwest of Willamina, about 35 miles west of Salem.

The target site was a 110-acre hump of clear-cut land owned by Hampton Affiliates, a Portland-based wood products company. Above it, skies were cloudless. It was 65 degrees with 80 percent humidity and northeasterly winds up to 2 mph.

“We had a big rain here last week, so this is perfect conditions,” said David Hampton, assistant timberland manager with the company. “The soil is moist, and it’s not as dangerous.”

But as a Hughes 500 helicopter circled the hillside, dribbling jellied gasoline like napalm across it, the potential for disaster soon became apparent.

Within minutes, the hillside and the 1,200 tons of slash that littered it were blanketed in flames, some lapping against the edges of an adjacent forest of Douglas fir.

“I call it controlled mayhem,” Hampton said over the roar, stepping back from the heat even a quarter-mile away.

Hampton was one of 15 men and two fire engines standing by in case the blaze got out of hand. The Oregon Department of Forestry, which gave its blessing to the burn, would step in to help in an emergency.

But within an hour, there were few flames to be seen, and a towering column of yellow-gray smoke already was dissipating.

The “textbook burn,” as Hampton called it, was over. The risk of a wildfire caused by a summer lightning strike or careless hiker was abated, and the earth primed for replanting next year.

Barely three miles away and an hour later, a similar burn on a hillside owned by Boise Cascade was less successful.

The fire got away from crews, and it took a helicopter, a bulldozer and a day of work by firefighting crews to control it.

The damage was relatively minor — 35 acres were scorched — but the incident underscored the risks and the controversy surrounding prescribed burning.

The issue came under increased scrutiny after the Los Alamos fire in New Mexico — initially a prescribed burn — scorched 50,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 homes in May 2000.

Still, prescribed burns are a main tool for clearing dry, highly flammable excess wood that has built up through decades of fire suppression on federal land.

“The (prescribed burn) program is really going to be the focal point of fire management over the next 20 to 40 years,” said Mike Fitzpatrick, intelligence coordinator with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, the fire-fighting nerve center for the region.

“We’re trying to bring some of these areas where we’ve excluded fire back into the normal fire cycle,” he said.

Officials are predicting a normal fire year in most parts of Oregon. But recent prescribed fires in Central Oregon suggest that region could be vulnerable.

“We’re seeing very active prescribed fires,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some had to shut off their burning below 3,300 feet because they were getting too much scorch.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly analysis by a trio of federal agencies, much of Eastern Oregon remains abnormally dry, and the John Day River basin in the north central part of the state is in moderate drought.

Fitzpatrick said the John Day basin — the site of spectacular wildfires for nearly two decades — is a prime area of concern.

Not only did its higher elevations not get as much snowpack as expected after December, but the area still is loaded with dead lodgepole pines ravaged in the 1980s by pine beetles and tussock moths.

“It’s not even rotting on the ground; it’s stacked up like firewood,” Fitzpatrick said.

In 2001, human- and lightning-caused wildfires in Oregon scorched about 375,000 acres on federal and state-protected land, according to records at the interagency coordination center. In 2000, they burned about 342,000 acres. The 10-year average is about 197,000 acres.

Officials say fire crews around the state are better prepared this year because some finally are seeing the benefits of federal money approved in 2000 to boost firefighting capacity on national forest lands.

Congress approved $1.8 billion, creating about 800 new firefighting positions in Oregon and Washington and beefing up equipment.

“We’re seeing places that were operating with two or three engines and now they have six, and it makes a lot of difference,” Fitzpatrick said.

Officials say the later the snowpack melts, the milder the fire year is likely to be. The snowpack is still intact at many higher elevations around the state, including the Willamette Valley. But that does not eliminate fire risks from other sources.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the lightning season,” between mid-July and mid-August, said Mike Ziolko, ODF meteorology manager.

Some experts say that vulnerability only underscores the importance of prescribed burns.

“It’s very risky, but either we start the fires on our terms, or nature starts them on her terms,” Fitzpatrick said, “and nature always picks the worst times.”

Laurence M. Cruz can be reached at (503) 399-6716.

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