By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Recent rains and chilly nights have cooled the inferno that was the Monument fire near Unity, but U.S. Forest Service officials will be cleaning up after the big blaze for many years.
Even with the hot scent of charred fir and pine still permeating the air, workers are busy pursuing several tasks, said Jean Lavell, Unity District ranger.
The highest priority for crews is cutting down trees that were burned and weakened by the 24,000-acre lightning-sparked fire, Baker County's largest in more than 60 years.
Those flame-blackened snags, which can topple in even a gentle breeze, pose a safety hazard both to Forest Service workers and to the public, Lavell said.
That danger is the main reason the area inside the fire perimeter remain closed to the public, including hunters. It probably won't re-open until next spring, she said.
andquot;It really protects the interests of the government,andquot; Lavell said.
Although the Forest Service can't patrol the many miles of fire perimeter to prevent people from entering, the public warning helps to indemnify the government in the event a person broached the perimeter and was hurt, she said.
Falling fire-weakened snags alongside forest roads also reduces the threat to engineers working on another current fire restoration project: fixing culverts.
Heading off a runoff problem
Lavell said the Forest Service needs to repair or replace at least 44 of the corrugated steel pipes, which channel water beneath roads to prevent erosion.
The problem, she said, is that the Monument fire denuded many slopes of every tree, shrub and clump of grass, leaving no roots to hold the soil in place.
Over the past three weeks a series of andquot;pretty intense rainstormsandquot; has swept across some of those bare slopes, causing tons of ash-laden mud to pour down the hills, Lavell said.
The goopy debris, intermixed with logs, limbs and rocks, has blocked or partially filled many of the culverts, she said, forcing water to flow across roads instead of under them.
Unless the culverts are cleaned or in several cases replaced with a larger-diameter pipe next spring's snowmelt runoff will only worsen the situation, Lavell said.
Burned trees into boards
Many of the trees scorched during the Monument fire likely will end up in a lumber or chip mill.
Lavell said the Forest Service plans to log some of the burned timber starting next summer.
The agency's preliminary estimates andquot;very preliminary,andquot; Lavell said range from 2 million to 10 million board-feet.
Only dead trees will be cut, and the Forest Service will not build any new logging roads, Lavell said. It might temporarily open some closed roads, however.
A team of Forest Service employees is starting work on the environmental study required by federal law, and hopes to offer a timber sale to mills next year, Lavell said.
The project is the district's top timber priority, she said, because burned trees rapidly lose their commercial value.
andquot;Certainly for pure saw logs there's value lost with every summer that goes by,andquot; Lavell said.
Starting the timber salvage earlier than summer is impractical, she said.
Even if the Forest Service could finish the environmental study this fall, winter logging would be difficult because the fire burned at high elevations where the snowpack is deep, she said.
Some of the trees could be removed by helicopters, although Lavell said that's an expensive option that could make a timber sale uneconomical given the relatively low value of burned trees.
Not all the scars left in the Monument fire's wake are natural.
Firefighters carved many miles of control lines around the blaze's perimeter to halt the flames, using hand tools, bulldozers and, in a few places, explosive cord.
This fall, workers will spread native grass seed on some of those fire lines, Lavell said.
By next summer or even this fall, if autumn rains arrive early a new green coat will begin to erase the marks of man.
Lavell said no seed will be sown inside the Monument Rock Wilderness, where the blaze burned several thousand acres.
The federal Wilderness Act mandates that, whenever possible, the Forest Service and other agencies allow nature to heal its wounds in wilderness areas without help from humans, she said.
Not a total loss
Although the Monument fire ranks as Baker County's largest since 1939, Lavell said the blaze did not leave a black wasteland on each of the 24,000 acres.
In some places the flames stayed on the ground, consuming down logs, limbs and brush, but sparing the larger trees, she said.
Those areas actually benefitted from the fire, which accomplished the very goals Forest Service officials have when they purposely ignites prescribed fires.
andquot;From a purely biological perspective, there's a lot out there that looks pretty good,andquot; Lavell said.
The fire was much more destructive elsewhere, she said, especially on the approximately 17,000 acres that burned during the blaze's dramatic run on July 13, the day after it was started by lightning.
Those areas were severely scorched down to bare dirt and rock in places and thus will recover much more slowly, Lavell said.
However, much of the acreage burned July 13 was rocky terrain covered with grass and shrubs rather than dense timber, she said.
Those areas, many of which are inside the wilderness, should produce bumper crops of forage for deer and elk over the next few years.
Unity District crews are working with their counterparts from the neighboring Malheur National Forest on Monument Fire restoration projects, Lavell said.
About 75 percent of the acres burned are actually on the Malheur forest, she said.