PRESCRIPTION BURNING

June 21, 2001 12:00 am
MOSAIC PATTERN: La Grande Ranger District's Jay Rasmussen surveys a recently burned area a few miles above Spring Creek. Foresters are using the natural tool of fire to help reduce the debris and dead limbs on the forest floor. (The Observer/ALICE PERRY LINKER).
MOSAIC PATTERN: La Grande Ranger District's Jay Rasmussen surveys a recently burned area a few miles above Spring Creek. Foresters are using the natural tool of fire to help reduce the debris and dead limbs on the forest floor. (The Observer/ALICE PERRY LINKER).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Summer began today, bringing nightmares of wildfire to forest managers and landowners.

Foresters and scientists understand that fire is a natural occurrence that cant always be controlled unless nature cooperates, but the silviculturists and fire managers in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest are willing to take steps that might fool Mother Nature and decrease the chances of a devastating wildfire.

Foresters are using the natural tool of fire, along with cutting smaller trees, to help reduce the debris and dead limbs on the forest floor and clear piles of slash from earlier logging. The work can be slow-going, said John Szymoniak, fuels planner for the Wallowa-Whitman.

Decades of fire suppression, early logging and housing development have left their mark, and Szymoniak said progress will be steady but slow.

Weve been working hard the last four or five years, he said. We want people to understand what were doing, and why we cant go too fast or too slow.

The more open areas of ponderosa pine and some types of fir are the targets for much of the prescription fire.

Weve been focused on the drier types (of woodland) where we know there were fires of lower intensity, he said.

During this springs burning season, land that was logged two or three years ago was ignited. Slash piles and other debris were burned, creating a pattern of green grasses intermixed with burned areas.

Thats what we want, a mosaic pattern, said the La Grande Ranger Districts Jay Rasmussen, as he surveyed a recently burned area a few miles above Spring Creek.

The La Grande district burned 320 acres this spring, but forestwide, about 4,355 acres were ignited, according to Jason Steinmetz of the Interagency Fire Center.

Everything went well, Steinmetz said. We didnt have any problems.

Prescription burning has stopped for the summer, as grasses are drying, and the year-long drought has left some larger trees with less-than-ideal moisture.

Mark Jacques of the La Grande office of the Oregon Department of Forestry said that although private woodland owners rarely use prescription fire as a management tool, some are beginning to show an interest.

Fire is occasionally used on private range lands to encourage grass growth and keep out encroaching trees, Jacques said.

The private landowners approach to managing with fire may change somewhat in light of a 1997 law that could reduce the potential liability should a burn get out of control. The new law also provides funds for state forestry to hire a certified burn manager.

Next fall, burning will resume in the national forests, as foresters try to replicate the historical small fires that burned at regular 10- to 15-year intervals through the ponderosa pine and fir, preparing the way for healthy regeneration of grasses and continued growth of larger trees.

A long-term forest management project is planned for the slopes of Mount Emily. The Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry will undertake separate programs to reduce the debris and dead materials around private homes and on public land.

Jacques said the state agency hopes to receive a fire plan grant to help pay for removing dead material around the homes on Mount Emily.

The Forest Service this summer will begin to research a method of combining logging and prescription fire to manage its property on Mount Emily. Spokeswoman Gail Lee said the project is at least two or three years away.