October 10, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A program to help homeowners and small woodland owners reduce wildfire danger could lead to economic opportunity in Northeast Oregon.

The multi-pronged plan, part of the national fire plan, includes funding to help landowners who want to clear away dead material and underbrush that could fuel a cataclysmic fire.

After the unwanted limbs and brush are taken from the land, they could go to a center that would generate energy.

Its more than a dream, said Tim Keith of the La Grande office of the Oregon Department of Forestry. An assessment of the wild land fuels on the ground in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties will begin next year.

The Oregon Department of Energy will receive a $100,000 community assistance grant from the U.S. Forest Service to assess and locate a center in Northeast Oregon to convert the dead material into energy. According to a memo sent from John G. White of the energy department to state forestry officials, planning will begin this fall.

The general scope is to look at potential forest thinning in high fire-risk areas as one source of biomass (wood and brush), and at agricultural residues as a second source , White wrote. We want to identify potential locations within the three-county area where a biomass energy facility would be feasible.

White said Tuesday the feasibility study probably will be completed by early 2003.

We hope the study will identify locations (for energy generation), he said.

A $165,000 fire-plan grant from the Bureau of Land Management will help private landowners in Northeast Oregon who want to reduce dead material that could heighten fire danger. Another $249,000 will come from the BLM to private landowners in the Blue Mountains. The grants, which will be awarded to state forestry, are expected next spring.

Another $50,000 will go toward planning for fire safety on Mount Emily, near the Cove area and around Morgan Lake. Keith said state forestry will apply for additional grants to help landowners in those areas.

Several other grants are being awarded through the national fire plan to communities in Northeast Oregon. The Joseph Rural Fire Protection District will receive $4,000 from the Forest Service to develop a plan to protect homes and businesses in the highly developed Wallowa Lake area.

The Imbler Rural Fire District was granted $9,450, and the Cove and North Powder districts received $4,500 and $3,000 respectively to help them respond to potential wild land fires.

Other grants include $172,000 to Wallowa Resources to create a system for using small-diameter logs, and $30,000 to the Grande Ronde Model Watershed to analyze the economic effects of environmental restoration projects.

A number of grants were awarded to municipalities in the Baker Ranger District.