MY VOICE: Reduction will dampen fire danger

July 09, 2014 08:35 am
Recently, I signed the Record of Decision for the Tollgate Fuels Reduction Project and began implementing a series of activities to reduce hazardous fuels on Umatilla National Forest lands adjacent to the Tollgate community.

Why here, why now? The Tollgate project was initiated shortly after Umatilla County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan identified the Upper State Highway 204/Tollgate Wildland-Urban Interface area as a priority for fuels reduction projects. The project is authorized under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to streamline the analysis process, allowing the U.S. Forest Service to more quickly address fuel-loading issues that occur within WUI areas.

This community is situated above steep canyons and difficult terrain that is mostly unmanaged with the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness to the south, the South Fork Walla Walla Inventoried Roadless Area to the northwest and the Lookinglass Inventoried Roadless Area to the east. The project area is home to hundreds of private residences, recreation cabins, popular campgrounds, power line corridors, Spout Springs Ski Area and other private businesses. 

The area is a complicated pattern of private, state and federal lands and we know from experience that wildfire does not respect ownership boundaries. Through planned fuels reduction treatments, we hope to create defensible areas between the National Forest System lands and private lands to slow wildfire spread, keeping flames closer to the ground and not moving quickly, with great intensity, through the canopy. These induced changes will more likely create situations where wildfire suppression efforts can be conducted more safely along with a higher degree of success.

The Tollgate Fuels Reduction project area is located in a moist forest landscape. Though wildfire in this type of forest is less frequent, given the right circumstances, the potential for a large wildfire exists. We’ve witnessed the effects of such fires here in the northern Blue Mountains with the School and Burnt Cabin fires of 2005 and Columbia Complex fire of 2006. 

Approximately 4,300 acres is proposed for treatment through a variety of activities such as thinning and removing of trees, piling and burning, as well as prescribed fire. The project identifies surface fuel — brush, dead limbs and dried moss, needles and leaves that can carry fire from the ground up into the canopy of the tree — reduction treatments and canopy fuel located in the crown of the tree, and places them strategically along the plateau rim to provide defensible space and fuel treatments for future fire suppression actions. This work will, in several places, advantageously coincide with adjacent fuels reduction activities on private land funded by National Fire Plan grants through the efforts of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

I want to thank those members of the Tollgate community, interested public, landowners, county commissioners, organizations, and our state partners who took the time to participate early and often in the public involvement process. Over the past few years, those collaborative efforts have helped to inform my decision and identify the fuels reduction actions analyzed in the environmental impact statement. 

I also want to thank the Walla Walla Ranger District’s interdisciplinary team of resource professionals who, with experience and best science, developed the treatments for this project.

By acting now to reduce these fuels, we can improve protection to adjacent private lands and public infrastructure, reduce the intensity of potential fire behavior, and provide safer ingress and egress within the Tollgate community for firefighter and public safety. To not act now would be irresponsible. I believe this project is the right thing to do, on this landscape, to lessen the impacts that large wildfires now pose to people, property and ecosystems.


About the author

Kevin Martin is the Umatilla National Forest supervisor.

My Voice columns should be 500 to 700 words. Submissions should include a portrait-type photograph of the author. Authors also should include their full name, age, occupation and relevant organizational memberships. 

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