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Home arrow Online arrow Photos arrow FIRE: PRESECRIPTION FOR HEALTHY FORESTS


FIRES AND FORESTS: Over the years small fires that have ignited within the La Grande watershed have been extinguished by firefighters, but a number of acres have burned. Last Septembers Boulevard Fire burned 50 acres near the Beaver Creek Reservoir. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
FIRES AND FORESTS: Over the years small fires that have ignited within the La Grande watershed have been extinguished by firefighters, but a number of acres have burned. Last Septembers Boulevard Fire burned 50 acres near the Beaver Creek Reservoir. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

For nearly a century since 1910 Smokey the Bear has ruled fire suppression in the national forests.

The Forest Service was looking for a mission and found that in firefighting, said John Szymoniak, assistant fire staff officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. That became a theme, a niche to get a toehold in the country. Fire suppression went on for almost 100 years.

The Forest Services firefighting mission, especially in the Northwest, followed on the heels of 1910 wildfires that, within about 48 hours, burned 3 million acres and killed 85 people in Northeast Washington, Western Montana and Northern Idaho. Those fires resulted in a congressional act giving the Forest Service the authority to lead wildland firefighting efforts in individual states.

In the early days and even well into the 20th century, logging and fire suppression defined forest activity. The largest of the ponderosa pine, larch and Douglas fir were logged for dollars, while the smaller trees and shrubbery were protected from cleansing fire.

Almost everybody agrees that many decisions made during the past 90 years have brought the national forests of Northeast Oregon to a sorry state today.

Among the most devastating of earlier, well-meaning decisions was the drive to extinguish every single fire that flared up in the forests. For thousands of years, in the dryland pine forests, lightning had ignited small fires every five to 15 years, burning the smaller trees, underbrush and grass. Ponderosa and larch not only withstand fire, they thrive in post-fire conditions, but Smokey brought an end to the cycle of growth nurtured by fire.

Nature will have her way, however, and the foresters of the 21st century are faced with correcting the mistakes of the 19th and 20th.

Weve tried to fire-proof through logging, said Brett Brownscombe of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council. We tried that for 100 years, and it hasnt worked. It has not been in keeping with the natural disturbance regime.

Overgrown forests breed

disease, insect epidemics

Bob Rainville, coordinator of the Blue Mountain Demonstration Forest, said the most recent estimates, completed earlier this month, indicate that more than 1 million acres in the Blue Mountains three forests the Wallowa-Whitman, the Malheur and the Umatilla are overstocked. The Wallowa-Whitman alone holds about 350,000 acres of overstocked forests.

That includes large trees growing too tightly together; standing dead trees and acres of very small trees, as small as 5-inches in diameter, growing closely together, he said.

These conditions lead to risks of fire, disease and insect epidemics, he said.

Bob Messinger, lead forester for Boise Cascade in La Grande, said he has been talking to federal forest managers for more than 10 years about the destruction caused by insect infestation.

Messinger said that during the spruce budworm epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he realized, We had the wrong species (of trees) on too many sites; too much food for the budworm.

Instead of having insect populations collapse in five to 10 years, this one went 10 to 15 years. I can remember going out on the ridges with Regional Forester John Lowe and saying, What are we going to do about this?

Don Scott, an entomologist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande, said the 14 major insects and diseases usually occur in overstocked forests, but a full analysis is needed.

The condition of the federal forestlands should be no surprise, said Szymoniak, the Wallowa-Whitmans assistant fire staff officer.

Forty years ago they were predicting this could happen, he said.

As the dryland forests grew, with smaller shade-tolerant trees and shrubs crowding and sometimes overpowering the sun-loving, fire-resistant pine and larch, the risk of catastrophic fire grew. When a Colorado wildfire killed 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain in 1994, we found we needed to be more proactive, Szymoniak said.

But the Forest Service continues to put out lightning-caused blazes.

The majority of forest stands are not in a desired condition now for a natural fire, said La Grande District Ranger Kurt Wiedenmann. The fires would be in much greater intensity and magnitude (than historically).

That the Forest Service remains committed to extinguishing fires is reflected in the 2001 National Fire Plan funding for the Wallowa-Whitman. Funding, which is awarded on a competitive basis, has not been announced for the current year.

In 2001, the Wallowa-Whitman received more than $2.2 million for private contracts, state forestry and Forest Service firefighting jobs. The money paid for 42 permanent and 19 temporary federal firefighters, as well as 106 temporary private contracting jobs, and bought three fire engines for the forest.

Not only has the forest become overgrown, people have moved close to forest land and insist on protection from wildfire. In some cases, private landowners have allowed their property to become overgrown, increasing the fire hazard to private property and public forestland. The fire plan provides an incentive, through grants, to landowners who are willing to remove underbrush and focus on creating natural barriers to protect their homes. The Oregon Department of Forestry received $461,369 in 2001 for landowner assistance in three counties. In Union County, the areas on Mount Emily, Cove and Morgan Lake received $60,500 for planning last year. More is expected during 2002.

Logging smaller trees,

using fire may improve health

In Wiedenmanns view, a solution to forest overcrowding lies in removing smaller trees and underbrush and using prescription fire where possible.

Many within the Forest Service agree that logging should precede prescription fire. Officials, such as Wiedenmann and Rainville, say that the Forest Service has socio-economic as well as environmental objectives.

Mechanical treatment offers the best economically to the communities, Rainville said.

Satisfying all interests is also difficult, said Wiedenmann.

Not everyone agrees with active restoration, he said. Many believe in passive if theres a lightning strike, let it burn.

Finding contractors willing to harvest the smaller trees some as small as 5 inches in diameter can be a problem, but the demonstration forest has been looking toward innovative contracts, combining timber sales with government-supported restoration projects to achieve healthier conditions within the


Research has shown that mechanical treatment alone wont restore the forest to a healthy state. Fire performs several functions necessary to the healthy holistic growth of a forest.

There are a number of questions about substituting mechanical treatment for fire, said researcher Jim McIver of the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande. Fire has specific effects on the nutrients in the layers of soil. It is critical to plant growth. You dont get compaction and displacement of soil.

McIver is participating in research comparing the effects of mechanical treatment to the effects of fire. The paper is expected to be published later this spring. He said that researchers dont make judgment calls, but provide the results of their research to Forest Service managers.

McIver cautioned against mechanical treatment only, however.

If we only do mechanical (throughout the forests), nature will eventually burn it up, he said. Were not big enough, we dont have the resource to effect change at that scale.

Weather, social issues affect

managers ability to use fire

Theres little disagreement that fire is a restoration tool, but the act of igniting a forest brings with it many social implications, including the influx of smoke into residential areas. The Forest Service has a fairly narrow window of opportunity for prescription fire in Northeast Oregon.

The Demonstration Forests Rainville said that about 450,000 acres of the 2.4-million-acre Wallowa-Whitman have been treated through logging. Most must also be treated with fire.

The factors affecting prescribed fire are money, weather conditions, acceptable risk, Rainville said. Its difficult to burn many acres in one year because of the weather.

On those occasions such as one day last October when the wind suddenly changes and smoke drifts across the Grande Ronde Valley, the Forest Service gets complaints about air pollution.

Despite the drought, 2001 was a good burning year, Szymoniak said.

This year, 11,500 acres had fuel treatment, a combination of mechanical and fire, and this was a dry year. We got that much done, he said.

But many, many more acres are at risk.

We dont have a good assessment of how much we need to do to get ahead of the curve, Wiedenmann said. At about 10,000 acres a year, it will take 50 years.

It may take even longer.

What managers want is long-term objectives of building bigger structures; with bigger wide-spaced trees that can withstand fire, such as ponderosa. Thats 100 years off, McIver said.

Environmentalists, such as Brownscombe, are concerned about the long-term goals of restoration.

Youve got to be really careful when you talk about thinning. If you say youre going to thin and make it better, youve got to have a goal. If your goal is to try to regain healthy natural conditions, where fire moves through naturally, thats good.

If the idea is to grow big trees faster, then what are we going to do? Cut them down again?

In Szymoniaks opinion, restoration itself is what most people want.

I think theres broad agreement to have a forest thats more natural, to have less big swings, he said.

Fire behaves differently in the high-elevation, mixed conifer forests of Northeast Oregon than it does in the lower level dryland pine forests. There, stand replacement fires moved through every 100 to 200 years, and although a number of those forests have been logged heavily during the past century, their very elevation has provided some protection from the chainsaw.

100-year cycle of fire

nears end in higher mountains

Many of Northeast Oregons high elevation forests are at risk, as the 100-year cycle draws to a close. In areas south and east of Union County, catastrophic fires, such as the fires on the Elkhorn Ridge near Anthony Lakes and the Tower Fire of Umatilla County, destroyed several thousand acres, leaving not even seeds for regrowth.

Although some may believe that the historic stand-replacement fires should burn until they are naturally extinguished, Forest Service officials say that course of action is out of the question, because of population distribution, and other social interests.

For example, the Beaver Creek Watershed forest, which Forest Service managers say is at a high risk of fire, is the home of La Grandes alternative water supply and a fish and wildlife habitat. A stand-replacement fire there would be socially destructive, they say.

Over the years, the small fires that have ignited within the watershed have been extinguished by firefighters, but a number of acres have burned. Last Septembers Boulevard Fire burned 50 acres near the Beaver Creek Reservoir.

As the small fires are suppressed, we may be creating a mosaic pattern, Wiedenmann said. That pattern, burning a few acres each year over many years, could be a deterrent to a stand-replacement fire with huge social costs.

Prescription fire, too, is not a viable tool in the mixed conifer forests.

We wont do prescribed fire in those high elevation forests, Szymoniak said.

Some say that the logging and fire suppression practices over the past 100 years produced more than undesirable trees and underbrush.

The largest larch and pine are gone, and the genetics from those trees have been removed to a large degree, Brownscombe said.

Those big ponderosa pines were gold, Szymoniak said. The lumbermen had to build sawmills in the forest to take them out. The bill for that gold is due now. Its time to invest.

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