By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
U.S. Forest Service officials can't prevent fires, but they want to ensure that blazes sparked on public land do not spread to private property, where flames endanger not only trees and wildlife, but also people and their possessions.
The Forest Service has focused this effort for the past few years on Sumpter and Stices Gulch, said Barry Hansen of the Forest Service's Burnt-Powder Fire Zone.
In both places, national forest boundaries run so close to homes that cones from publicly owned pine trees sometimes fall onto residents' porches.
To reduce the risk of fire following that same short path, the Forest Service has cleared underbrush and cut excess trees in thickets in and around Sumpter, then burned leftover slash.
Work could start later this year in Stices Gulch.
The agency's goal, Hansen said, is to starve future blazes of fuel, affording firefighters a better chance to extinguish flames before they jump private property lines.
With the Sumpter and Stices Gulch projects under way, Forest Service officials have shifted their attention to the east face of the Elkhorn Mountains, the thickly wooded slopes that rise above Bakery Valley west and north of Baker City.
Hansen said the first phase of the multi-year project involves the approximately 10-mile section between Washington Gulch and Rock Creek.
Work could start as soon as this summer, but Hansen said the majority of the effort is planned for 2004 and beyond. Eventually the project could extend to national forest parcels north of the Anthony Lakes Highway.
It's not certain who will actually cut the trees, pile the brush and conduct the prescribed burns. In similar projects in the past the Forest Service employed its own workers, hired private contractors, and paid crews of inmates from the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City.
Although some districts along the eastern base of the Elkhorns are more densely populated than either Sumpter or Stices Gulch, Hansen said Forest Service officials deemed those two areas higher priorities than the east face.
First, along the Elkhorns the national forest boundary does not lie as close to homes as at Sumpter and Stices Gulch, Hansen said.
In most places along the base of the Elkhorns, private forestlands separate residential neighborhoods from national forest lands, which generally begin at least a few hundred feet in elevation above the valley, and more than a thousand feet in some places.
Those private forests create a andquot;bufferandquot; between public property and homes, Hansen said. And, he said, that buffer serves as a fairly effective firebreak, especially where the privately owned forests have been logged recently.
The second factor, Hansen said, is that the threat of a fire moving from the national forest downhill to private lands in the valley is mitigated somewhat by the lay of the land, and by prevailing summer winds.
He said Forest Service officials worry more about strong south winds pushing a fire north along the face of the Elkhorns.
Usually only at night do winds blow downhill, and that's when fires calm.
In fact, Hansen said it's probably more likely that a fire would spread up the east slope of the Elkhorns than down flames tend to climb faster than they descend, and during the heat of the day, when fires are most active, winds typically blow from the valley up into the mountains.
In any case, the private forest buffers are beneficial whether they help stop a fire moving from public land to private, or vice versa, Hansen said.
Unlike the Forest Service's projects at Sumpter and Stices Gulch, work on the east face of the Elkhorns probably won't produce any commercial timber, Hansen said.
andquot;I think most all of this is going to be handwork,andquot; he said.
Most trees slated for cutting are too small for mills, Hansen said.
In addition, the project consists of many small parcels scattered over several miles, making a single timber sale unfeasible.
Hansen said officials don't yet know how many parcels, or how many acres, the Forest Service will include in the project.
The speed with which the Forest Service finishes the job depends on how much money Congress allocates through the National Fire Plan, Hansen said.
With no timber sale to help offset the cost of cutting, piling and burning trees, the Fire Plan is the sole source of money for the east face project, he said.
The Fire Plan also allocates money to help private property owners clean up their own lands, Hansen said.
The Oregon Department of Forestry office in Baker City coordinates that program. More information is available by calling Joe Hessel at 523-5831.
Hansen said Forest Service officials also might try to accelerate the project by staying away from areas designated as habitat for the threatened Canada lynx.
Were the agency to propose to cut trees and light prescribed fires in lynx habitat, it would have to clear the work first with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hansen said.
That process could take more than a year, he said.