December 08, 2002 11:00 pm

JOSEPH — Wallowa County residents will be asked at a town hall meeting Wednesday what they want done to reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire on Mount Howard.

A panel of U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry representatives will meet at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Joseph Civic Center for a question-and-answer session and to receive suggestions.

It's not a question of if but when Mount Howard will burn, officials say.

That has been the message at presentations by the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee. A fire could be devastating to homes from Tucker Down Road and across Upper Prairie Creek to the Wallowa Lake community.

The fuels-reduction fire break constructed around the resort area over the past two years opened up a swath as a safe corridor for firefighters.

There are 40-60 tons per acre of dead trees on Mount Howard.

"Those are incredible fuel loads," said Forest Service Fire Management Officer Nick Lunde.

"Demon fuels" are what firefighters call dead subalpine firs that torch up, sending out firebrands that can rain down as far as a half mile away.

"This is a complex social issue involving private property, wildland interface and watershed," said advisory committee member Bruce Dunn.

The group was asked Sept. 24 by the Forest Service to determine options to deal with the problem.

At presentations to various community groups there was speculation that options might include thinning and prescribed burns.

The Forest Service and the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners want to involve county residents, to learn what option the community prefers.

"Mount Howard and Wallowa Lake are critical to Wallowa County economically, socially and environmentally," County Commission Chairman Mike Hayward said. "There's a growing problem on Mount Howard that needs to be addressed, and the community needs to weigh in on it."

— Gary Fletcher