October 11, 2002 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE — The scenery of Mount Howard at Wallowa Lake is going to change, no matter what.

It's not a question of if, but when Mount Howard will burn. The conflagration could be devastating to homes built up Tucker Down Road, on Upper Prairie Creek, and the Wallowa Lake Community.

That was part of the message being presented by the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Council at meetings to such groups as the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce and the Wallowa Lake Homeowners Association and Tourist Committee.

That resort community is still at risk of catastrophic fire, despite the fire break constructed around it the last two years, and in spite of that community forming its own fire district, NRAC member Bruce Dunn told the Wallowa County Board of Realtors Wednesday. That fuel reduction project could stop ground fires, but not those from the air, Dunn said.

Other advantages provided by the opened-up swath is that it can provide a safer corridor for firefighters, said Nick Lunde, U.S. Forest Service fire management officer.

The Forest Service Sept. 24 asked NRAC to determine options to deal with the potentially explosive situation.

The Forest Service and the Wallowa County Commissioners want to involve county residents in town hall meetings in November and December, to learn what option the community would prefer, in order to lessen the effects of the inevitable.

One advantage to having broad support from the community is that it might lessen complications of any potential appeal, Lunde said.

Mount Howard's problem is like that in other huge fire disasters seen lately. Decades of eliminating fire from the forest has left 40 tons per acre of dead jackstrawed trees and standing dead trees on the lower slope. Dunn did not think that mixed conifer stand had ever been logged.

Above the 6,400-foot elevation (where 80 percent of the trees are dead) there is

an estimated 60 tons of dead fuel per acre. "Those are incredible fuel loads." Lunde said

"We were lucky this year," Lunde said about the numerous lightning-caused fires accompanied by rain. Firefighters were able to put them out when they were small.

One was on Mount Howard. When a helicopter returned to retrieve firefighters with big, red 110-pound packs, they could not be seen through the tangle of dead fuels, Lunde said.

Compounding the Mount Howard problem is mistletoe and an epidemic infestation of four insects — fir engraver beetle, spruce and Douglas fir bark beetles and the balsam wooly adelgid that is attacking the subalpine fir. The adelgid species was introduced from Europe in the 1930s and has no natural predators here.

"Demon fuels" is what firefighters call these dead subalpine firs, Lunde said. They torch up, sending out firebrands that can rain down as far as a half mile away. A fuel break a mile wide might be required to stop such a firestorm, Lunde said.

"This is a high priority area. We hit it with everything we have, but one day everything won't be enough."

Someone in the 15-member group commented that such a fire might jump from Mount Howard to Mount Joseph (with similar fuel-load problems) and thus surround the resort community, making a dangerous situation in which to send firefighters.

Firefighter or civilian, you have to run for your life, said realtor David Brandt a former fireman. The heat can scorch your skin more than 200 feet away. It creates its own wind. It can suck up all the oxygen, Brandt said. People can die without being burned.

"You can rebuild a house," Dunn said, "but it's kind of hard to bring somebody back from the dead." This type of fire would burn hot and take it all. Even if houses were saved or rebuilt, they would have a blackened moonscape view.

Property values could be


When asked about options, Dunn responded that an NRAC committee is beginning to study what would be possible. He guessed it might include prescribed burns and mechanical thinning.

The 2,000 acres in question is Forest Service land. It is not in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, but the upper part is steep with no marketable timber to help fund a project.

"This is not a resource issue," said Dunn, a R-Y Timber Co. forester. "This is a complex social issue involving private property, wildland interface and watershed," Lunde said.