Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The east face of the Elkhorn Mountains is one of the great natural settings in Baker County, forming the dramatic backdrop for Baker Valley, and it's in danger.

The threat is fire.

Over the past quarter century, while lightning-sparked blazes charred more than 30,000 acres elsewhere in the Elkhorns, the east face has in the main escaped that fate.

A blaze burned about 1,000 acres on the east side of Red Mountain in September 2006, but before that the last major blaze on the east side of the Elkhorns was the Anthony Burn of 1960.

But you need only look a few miles to the west to see what an ill-timed lightning bolt can do.

Near Anthony Lakes the scars from the 1986 Silver fire and the 1989 Tanner Gulch fire are still obvious.

Several miles to the south, the Sloans Ridge fire swept through most of the upper North Fork John Day River canyon in 1996.

The comparison between those blazes, all of which burned more than 7,000 acres, and the situation on the east face of the Elkhorns isn't a perfect one. The differences between the forests range from subtle to substantial. To some extent the fires we mentioned above mimicked blazes from previous centuries.

Known as stand-replacement fires, these blazes kill most of the mature trees but happen only every 100 years or so. Such fires are normal in certain forest types, including lodgepole pine.

In places on the east face, though, fires in the past were more frequent. At least they were until the region was settled and the Forest Service and other agencies started putting out most fires quickly.

The absence of fire has allowed some trees, primarily grand fir, to proliferate. A fire that starts in these areas might burn hotter, and spread faster, than fires in the past.

Preventing that is the goal of a project that Congress approved and that has money for forest restoration on public and private land along the east face.

This work probably won't produce a lot of commercial timber, but it will yield tangible benefits - and not just preserving the beautiful vista of the tree-clad Elkhorns.

Avoiding a major fire will also protect the streams that shelter fish, including the threatened bull trout, and supply irrigation water to farms and ranches in the valley.

We've been lucky, frankly, that the east face hasn't been ravaged by a big fire in more than a generation. But it will take real work in the woods to protect the mountains for generations to come, and we're optimistic that the current project will start the process.