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By JAYSON JACOBY
BLM officials have temporarily banned motor vehicles, except on several well-traveled roads, from 34,700 acres of public lands in eastern Baker County that were blackened by this summer's Foster Gulch Complex fire.
The prohibition, which officials hope will prevent drivers and riders from digging tire ruts that could exacerbate erosion on ground laid bare by flames, will continue at least until June 1, 2007, said Debbie Lyons, a spokeswoman at BLM's Vale District office.
The vehicle ban does not apply to the 18,900 acres of private property that burned.
Altogether the Foster Gulch Complex, which consisted of two blazes that joined about a week after they were sparked by lightning on July 23, scorched 53,600 acres. The burned area extends from Halfway Hill along Ore. Highway 86, east to Brownlee and Oxbow reservoirs, and north along Hells Canyon Reservoir in the Oxbow/Homestead areas.
The Foster Gulch Complex was Baker County's largest wildfire in more than half a century.
Although flames crept to within a few feet of several homes in the Oxbow and Pine Creek areas, firefighters saved the houses, and no one was hurt.
The following roads inside the burned area remain open to motor vehicles:
o Ore. Highway 86
o Sag Road, which leads from Highway 86 near Halfway to Brownlee Reservoir
o Deer Creek Road, to the Brownlee Dam overlook
o Oxbow-Brownlee Road
o Homestead Road north of Oxbow
o Hess Road, which connects Homestead Road to the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road
Although the fire spared some areas, leaving unburned islands of grass and shrubs, in other places the flames left little but ash, said Todd Kuck, the supervisory natural resource specialist for the agency's Baker Resource Area.
Those charred places are especially susceptible to erosion because there are no plants to deflect the force of raindrops, absorb some of the water and, with their roots, hold the soil in place, Kuck said.
Motor vehicle tires can aggravate the situation by carving ruts that channel water, causing it to flow faster and wash away even more soil, he said.
Kuck emphasized, though, that the burned BLM lands, including areas away from the roads listed above, remain open to hunters and other visitors who travel on foot, horseback or bicycle.
He also pointed out that some of the 34,700 acres are inside Wilderness Study Areas; in those areas motor vehicles were banned from traveling off of existing roads even before the Foster Gulch Complex.
andquot;We're not trying to keep people off the ground, what we're mainly concerned about is limiting all-terrain vehicles from driving off road, and across the burned area before it has a chance to recover,andquot; Kuck said.
BLM officials want to jump-start that recovery as soon as possible.
A team of agency workers has proposed to employ helicopters to dump straw and wood-fiber mulch onto burned ground, and then sow grass seed, also from the chopper, Kuck said.
Officials also hope to spray herbicides to stymie noxious weeds, which often are the first plants to sprout following a fire.
The Foster Gulch Complex burned through areas infested by noxious weeds such as rush skeletonweed, Dalmatian toadflax, and spotted and diffuse knapweed, Kuck said.
He said BLM officials in Washington, D.C., have not approved the restoration plans, nor allocated money to do the work.
Kuck said he expects those officials will decide soon whether to authorize the restoration work.
The effects of the Foster Gulch Complex probably will persist even after BLM officials allow motor vehicles to return.
BLM will have to cancel livestock grazing in some burned areas for at least the next two years, to allow grass and other plans to re-establish a roothold, Kuck said.
While the fire was burning, workers from the Pine Valley Ranch had to move hundreds of head of cattle that were grazing in the path of the flames.