Of the Baker City Herald

Baker Citys watershed, perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate around, is running up a hefty tab for upkeep.

The federal government over the past two years has put up more than $2.2 million for projects intended to protect the 10,000-acre watershed from wildfires.

By this time next year, officials from the city and the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the watershed, expect they will have used that money to substantially reduce the risk of a big fire on about 1,000 acres.

And they believe the work on that area will make the other 9,000 acres less vulnerable to fire.

City officials consider the money well-spent.

If a fire burned a substantial section of the watershed, the city might have to build a water-filtration plant, said Dick Fleming, the citys public works director.

The estimated cost is $8 million to $10 million.

The Forest Service started the effort last summer with a $1.45-million project in which workers created a 630-acre shaded fuelbreak along a ridge above Elk Creek, at the south end of the watershed.

Shaded fuelbreak is a fire experts term for places where loggers cut some of the trees, increasing the distance between the ones that are left. Workers also haul away or burn underbrush and fallen limbs that, if left to pile up, can keep a fire well-fed.

Last summer Forest Service officials figured the 630-acre project would be the last in the watershed for at least a few years.

But then suddenly it seemed the entire West, with the exception of the watershed itself, was ablaze.

More than a million acres burned last summer during the regions most destructive fire season in decades.

Congress reacted by approving the National Fire Plan, which backed up its anti-fire rhetoric with about $1.8 billion of taxpayers money to hire tens of thousands of new firefighters and pay for projects, like those in the watershed, designed to reduce the risk of fire.

As a result, money has continued to flow into the watershed project.

This summer the Forest Service received a $607,000 National Fire Plan grant to expand the shaded fuelbreak near Elk Creek by 314 acres.

The agency has hired Jantzer and Sons of Grants Pass to do the work, which is scheduled for next year, said Steve Snider of the Forest Services Burnt-Powder Fire Zone.

And now for the first time some of those federal dollars are going to the city as well as to the Forest Service.

Although most of the watershed is federal land, the city owns 160 acres along Elk Creek.

The city will get $55,175 to thin about 100 acres of that forest, Fleming said.

The city also received $135,900 to do similar work along the road under which is buried the citys main water pipeline.

Fleming said that when the work is finished on both the federal land and the citys acreage, he will be much more confident in firefighters chances of stopping a blaze from spreading north into the heart of the watershed.

He said that south part of the area, above Elk Creek, may be the most vulnerable part of the watershed because it tends to be hotter and drier, and because thunderstorms there sometimes arrive without rain showers to help douse lightning-sparked blazes.

The shaded fuelbreak is a line firefighters can defend, Fleming said.

That gives them a spot where, under normal circumstances, they could stop a fire theyd have a good shot, he said.

Work on the citys land and along the Pipeline Road could start this fall, Fleming said.

Generations of city officials have feared a fire in the watershed, which sprawls across the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains, about 10 miles west of the city.

The areas streams and springs supply most of the drinking water for the citys 10,000 residents. And those sources are so pure that the city doesnt have to filter the water to meet federal standards, an exemption granted to just three other Oregon cities Bend, Portland and Reedsport.

But a large fire in the watershed could quickly push Baker City from that list.

Fires can strip slopes of the trees and other vegetation that prevent rain and melting snow from sluicing mud into streams.