August 31, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Black, heavy plumes of smoke south of La Grande Friday afternoon sent more than one heart racing.

But the danger today is minimal for the areas newest forest fire.

About 4:30 p.m. Friday, the location of the smoke was pinned to a fire burning in the roadless area of the La Grande municipal watershed in the Beaver Creek area, about 16 air miles southwest of the city.

According to Judy Wing with the state forestry department, by 11 p.m. the fire was burning about 75 acres of spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine trees in an area with a heavy fuel load.

The fire has been named the Boulevard Fire as it is burning along the Boulevard Trail, about

1 1/2 miles northeast of Forest Service Road 5125.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

Dave Lukens, assistant fire manager officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said no lightning strikes had occurred in the fire area recently.

Our lightning system picked up no strikes in the watershed area, but there were strikes on the forest on the north end, mostly in Wallowa County, he said.

Late Friday afternoon two tanker planes, one based in Redmond and one in McCall, Idaho, were dropping multiple loads of chemical retardant on the fire, refueling at the La Grande airport.

A helicopter based at the Frasier Guard Station near Ukiah was making multiple retardant drops on the fire.

By this morning, Wing said, a Type II fire management team headed up by incident commander Dale Gardner was on its way from Redmond to La Grande. Gardner knows the area, she said, as he was on the Eastside Complex fire last year.

The plan for fighting the fire today is to continue doing a direct initial attack by air. Three helicopters are dropping retardant on hot spots this morning, Wing said, noting that rapidly burning spruce and lodgepole pines can very easily cause spot fires.

More than 100 firefighters are also hiking into the fire, she said, including local contractors, Forest Service firefighters including the Union Interagency Hot Shot crew, and others.

The fire is not contained, and no estimated time is set for containment.

If an agreement can be worked out with a private landowner, a fire camp for the Boulevard Fire will be set up at Vey Meadow.

While the fire is burning in a difficult area to reach, there is no nearby adjacent private land being threatened and there is a stream that firefighters are hoping to keep the fire from jumping. Without major winds blowing this morning, the fire is burning toward the south.

Wing said with bow hunting season under way, and the drought on and no significant rain expected, hunters and others in the woods cannot have campfires and should be very cautious to prevent more wildfires.