Of the Baker City Herald

People in uniform hunker in the forest below as the helicopter, its two-blade rotor percussing the air like a snare drum played by an insane giant, climbs the canyon, slows, takes aim and fires. . .

Not bullets.

Not bombs.

Not rockets.

Ping-pong balls.

Although the chopper is unleashing a barrage of white plastic rather than cold steel, theres still a military feel to the scene.

This is characteristic of U.S. Forest Service fire operations.

Everyone is dressed alike, though in the ubiquitous olive green pants and lemon yellow shirts of the fireline rather than the camouflage fatigues of the battlefield.

But the Forest Service workers are on this ridge southeast of Dooley Mountain not to fight a fire, but to ignite one.

Spring is the season for prescribed burning.

Federal agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management use fire to treat a number of ills that plague forests and rangelands.

The project near Dooley Mountain, called Oasis, is an example of natural fuels reduction, said Steve Snider, fire management officer for the Forest Services Burnt-Powder Fire Zone.

What that means, basically, is igniting fires during the spring, when the moist ground and cooler weather make the blazes easier to control, then allowing the flames to creep along the ground.

Prescribed fires consume the pine needles, limbs and fallen logs that, if left on the ground, could be the tinder that transforms an August lightning strike into a 20,000-acre inferno, Snider said.

It has happened before at Dooley Mountain.

In both 1986 and 1989, lightning-caused fires scorched thousands of acres east of the Dooley Mountain highway.

The Oasis project, Snider said, encompasses much of the areas mixed conifer forest that escaped those blazes thus its name.

We need to get some treatment done or well lose all of it, he said.

Hence the helicopters high-decibel presence Thursday afternoon.

Those ping-pong balls the chopper expels arent the kind you play around with in the garage on a rainy Saturday.

They burn, actually.

Each ball contains a few dashes of potassium manganate powder, said Steve Christman, a Forest Service worker from Enterprise who operates the helicopter-mounted machine that fires the little spheres.

That machine also has a tank for anti-freeze (the Forest Service was using Prestone last week, although its the glycol, not the brand, thats important).

A needle inside the machine injects a dollop of anti-freeze into each ball before it is propelled away. The liquid starts a chemical reaction, and 20 seconds later the ball bursts into flame.

A helicopter firing an incendiary ping-pong ball as quickly as one every second can light a prescribed fire far faster than Forest Service workers tramping through the forest with diesel-filled drip torches, Snider said.

In the past the helicopters facility at starting fires fast wasnt needed on the Burnt-Powder zone, which encompasses the Baker, Unity and Pine ranger districts.

The reason, Snider said, is that the Forest Service generally burned no more than a couple hundred acres per day acreages that workers on the ground could handle.

But the agency was more ambitious Thursday.

Sniders plan called for burning 1,000 acres in the Oasis project (300 acres of which are managed by the BLM), enough to make the helicopter, rented from Hillcrest Aviation in Lewiston, Idaho, handy.

The Forest Service often lights prescribed fires of that size and larger on the north end of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Snider said. Workers there have a lot of experience with the ping-pong ball machine, which is why Christman and Griff Williams, also of Enterprise, were working on Dooley Mountain Thursday.

The pair took turns manning the machine, switching places when pilot Mark Matherly returned to the Baker City Municipal Airport to refuel and take on more ping-pong balls.

The weather at Oasis wasnt ideal mostly cloudy with relatively high humidity and even a stray shower, conditions that tend to suppress rather than fan the flames but after firing a couple thousand of the balls, the team sparked a fire that accomplished Sniders goals for the day.

Last fall fire crews had carved a control line around the area to be burned, Snider said, so keeping flames inside the boundaries was easy.

Forest Service officials hope to do more prescribed burning on the Burnt-Powder zone this spring, but they wont need the helicopter or the ping-pong balls, Snider said.

The planned burns 300 acres in the Baker City watershed above Elk Creek, 1,000 acres near Whitney will be done in chunks small enough to make the helicopter unnecessary, he said.