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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Reintroducing fire into the forest


Reintroducing fire into the forest

The first day of the Green McCoy prescribed burn was lit with a ping pong ball disepenser from a helicopter due to extremely steep slopes. Close to 500 acres of dead ground material were burned. KATY NESBITT / The Observer
The first day of the Green McCoy prescribed burn was lit with a ping pong ball disepenser from a helicopter due to extremely steep slopes. Close to 500 acres of dead ground material were burned. KATY NESBITT / The Observer

Man’s manipulation of nature tames the land, extracts its resources, and redirects the natural courses of rivers and streams.

As our understanding of science exponentially expands, natural resource managers are experimenting with way to bring forests back into balance by replicating natural history.

Reintroducing fire into the forests of the West has been a tool used by natural resource agencies for decades; a tool many attribute to the Native American people who used fire to increase the resiliency of the prairie. 

After the seemingly disastrous fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988, an emphasis of bringing fire back to the ecosystem has been a mantra for wildland management agencies.

This week, the Green McCoy prescribed burn plan was put into action far up Little Bear Creek south of Wallowa. Just a drainage away from the Eagle Cap Wilderness, this little sliver of the Eagle Cap Ranger District is open to vehicular traffic, wood gathering, and at times, timber sales.

Fire Management Officer Nathan Goodrich of the North Zone of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest outlined the goals of the nearly 700-acre unit. Fuel-load reduction, primarily dead and down logs, is a primary target for the project to alleviate the risk of a high-intensity, stand-replacing fire.

The project area boasts many majestic, healthy ponderosa pines, a species that in usual circumstances is highly fire resistant. Encroaching grand and white fir that crowd out the ponderosa, Douglas fir and western larch, are easily killed by fire, allowing for the more vibrant species to flourish.

Goodrich said burning brush like scholar’s willow, bitter cherry and bitterbrush improve browse for deer and elk. Burning in the spring will remove the dead, woody parts of the shrubs while allowing new growth to come back next year.

Different areas of the forest with their specific slopes, aspects, and species all experienced a variety of historical fire regimes. Without fire, dry, pine sites have changed to stands of douglas fir and mixed conifer, said Goodrich.

“The big picture is to get the stand back to its proper fire regime,” said Goodrich.

To set the forest back on its natural course, it sometimes takes two or three entries. Most environmental assessments will include “maintenance” burns allowing for
fire managers to burn the area again, if need be, five or 10 years later.

On Monday, day one of the burn, Goodrich guided a helicopter over 500 acres, too steep for hand crews to safely light, while Sled Springs rapeller JoAnn Frioli dropped ping pong balls filled with potassium and anti-freeze onto the forest floor.

Despite a dry spring, Goodrich said getting the dead fuels to burn took twice the number of ping pong ball drops than the fall.

The slopes of the terrain in some areas of the unit are so steep it is impossible to see the side of the hill standing on the edge of the road. Safety of crews is number one in firefighting and prescribed burning, prompting the burn plan to call for aerial ignition.

Tuesday, ground crews began lighting from the top of the hill with 50-foot strips of fire lit from drip torches, tools with a diesel and gas mixture that are highly effective at lighting dead, woody material on the ground.

The window for spring burning can be tricky — waiting until conditions are dry enough to carry a fire and before elk calve and neo-tropical birds fly through the Wallowas. Goodrich said some of the birds migrate through while others nest. May 15 is the rough deadline to stop burning in order to protect the birds.

Another concern with managing the prescribed fire is avoiding the riparian areas at the bottom of the slopes where Little Bear Creek and Bear Creek are flush with spring run-off. Often fuel loads are high near streams. If fire gets into areas with lots of dead and down material, fire severity increases.

The face of the Wallowas between Wallowa and Lostine is also a crucial area for fire mitigation to reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires. Homes and ranches in the lower and mid Wallowa Valley bump up against the forest, increasing the risk of wildfires spreading to private ground. Goodrich said this area is not a classic wildland/urban interface because of the sparse population, but is important to protect.

Private forest land on either side of the Forest Service’s Green McCoy burn were also a concern, so the fire line was built far from the boundary of private and public forest, said Goodrich. He credited Oregon Department of Forestry for helping in the wildland/urban interface zone as well as helping protect the private forest land.

Roughly $36,000 of federal funding payments to counties were used for the burn and will help pay for thinning contracts overseen by Wallowa Resources, an Enterprise nonprofit that supports local natural resource contracts and projects. Goodrich said residual stimulus money to the tune of $30,000 was also used on the project.


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