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The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is unique in that, under the right conditions, fire managers can allow fires to burn to help restore balance to wilderness ecosystems.
JOSEPH — Two fires, well inside the Eagle Cap Wilderness boundaries, are being monitored while they burn up dead and downed logs on the forest floor and help white bark pine re-establish itself where it is in decline.
Nathan Goodrich, fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman North Zone, said the High Hat Butte Fire, 14 air miles from Union, is burning in subalpine fir. Fire in that species “spots” or throws fire from burning trees several yards to other fir and creates a mosaic instead of burning fuels wholesale.
“It will make a good run and burns with high severity and intensity, or it will creep around and hardly do anything for a while,” Goodrich said.
Monitors were placed on a ridge top close enough to High Hat Butte to keep an eye on it, but with cooler temperatures and recent rainstorms it has been overseen by air and by lookouts this past week, Goodrich said.
The fire is burning between the elevations of 6,800 and 7,000 feet and was approved by the regional office to let burn because conditions in the forest were much wetter than earlier in the summer when the Forest Service used full suppression tactics on wilderness fires on Mount Nebo near the Imnaha River, and one near Silver Creek, a tributary to the Lostine River.
Another factor considered when the Forest Service is deciding whether or not to allow a wilderness fire to burn is its potential impact on recreation. A fire in the Idaho wilderness allowed to burn wasn’t close to public trails or where it would interfere with pack guides, Goodrich said.
The Katy Mountain Fire on the Little Minam River has stayed small. To date, it is listed as two-tenths of an acre. That fire is burning in white bark pine, Goodrich said, a species that’s regeneration is helped by fire. Fire opens up the cones and the seeds are then spread by squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers.
“Much of the white bark pine there is dead. The fire can clean that up,” Goodrich said. “The fire can help propagate the pine and get it back in its natural cycle.”
He said lack of fire has invited in disease that has put the white bark pine in decline. The high altitude species takes a long time to grow, and spreading the seeds will get new starts growing that are more disease resistant.
“We are allowing fire to play its natural role that has been upset through decades of suppression,” Goodrich said.
The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is unique in its ability to use fire as a tool in the wilderness.
“We did the policy work necessary to burn in the wilderness; we are alone in that,” Goodrich said.
Where logging and thinning are not allowed, Goodrich contends fire is the only disturbance fire managers can use.
“Landslides and wind events create change, but fire is the biggest disturbance tool we have,” he said. “It’s the only way we can effect change.”