WALLOWA — The many piles of slash dotting the Wallowa County landscape soon will be reduced to piles of ash as burning begins on private land under the protection go the Oregon Department of Forestry.
According to Matt Howard, Wallowa Unit forester for the department, the state is administering grants through the Natural Resource Conservation Service to help forest landowners treat and burn slash, the results from timber harvest and thinning, from the Divide country between the Imnaha River and Big Sheep Creek drainages to Minam.
Landowners are required to pay approximately 25% of the cost of thinning and burning the slash piles on their land and can use contractors to burn the slash for them.
"It will take a long-term commitment to improve the forest health," Howard said, "but there has been a great response from landowners and contractors."
Slash burning occurs in the spring after the snow melts and in the fall after the wildfire season is over, weather is cooler and fire danger is low. Due to the tremendous efforts of private landowners concerned about improving forest health, there are a lot of slash piles. Howard said landowners need to exercise caution.
"As far as escaped fires, the trouble I've seen is people burning ahead of a weather front coming in with wind," he said.
Fire managers such as Howard are concerned about the risks of escaped prescribed fires as well as the health effects of smoke, especially in the Wallowa Valley where inversions are common. Wildfire smoke can be hazardous to vulnerable populations, including the elderly, children and those with cardiovascular diseases.
"One of my biggest concerns is managing the smoke. We don't want to negatively impact people with sensitive conditions," Howard said.
A good smoke-management day, Howard said, is one with unstable atmospheric conditions. The time of day for burning also tends to be limited, starting later in the morning and ending mid-afternoon, so fires do not smolder into the night.
"You want a day with fairly light winds so the smoke rises up and transport winds will take it out of the valley," Howard said.
Lisa Mahon of Wallowa is working on a program connecting wildland owners with professional foresters and contractors to mitigate fire risk to their property. She said through programs like Firewise people are learning more about the risk of wildfire, how to reduce overstocked forests near their homes and the health impact of smoke.
"It is important to educate people as to why it's happening," Mahon said.
Coming from a family of foresters, Mahon's father-in-law, Mike Mahon, owns Bear Creek Logging. The time it takes him to burn, start to finish, varies from year to year, too, he said, and depends on how much slash he has to manage and uses a combination of burning, grinding and chipping, returning nutrients to the soil.
"There is a small window to burn within. Start too early, and the conditions are too dry. If you wait, then the material may be too wet to burn, he said.
Although it does not require a permit to burn slash, there are some requirements. A smoke management registration form must be filed within seven days of a burn. A landowner must check the Smoke Management Forecast (www.odf.state.or.us) to check on adverse burning conditions that would cause smoke to adversely impact a community and complete a smoke management accomplishment form which details the amount of burning done on a daily basis as long as burning continues. These forms must be submitted to the ODF.
The benefit of fuel reduction and the subsequent slash burning "is immeasurable," Howard said.