Where There's Smoke. . .

May 20, 2003 11:00 pm
Damp spring weather delayed prescribed burning near Baker City for more than a month. (Baker City Herald file photo/Jayson Jacoby).
Damp spring weather delayed prescribed burning near Baker City for more than a month. (Baker City Herald file photo/Jayson Jacoby).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Brett Thomas finally got to play with his matches.

A month or so later than usual, Thomas and his fellow Forest Service employees ignited the year's first prescribed fire Tuesday near Dooley Mountain summit south of Baker City.

Flames crept across about 120 acres of forest floor, said Thomas, assistant fire management officer for the Burnt-Powder Fire Zone.

"Yesterday was the first day," Thomas said this morning. "That's why we all have blisters."

Zone officials intend to burn almost 1,000 more acres today and Thursday near Sumpter Valley, Thomas said.

Weather permitting, of course.

Until Tuesday, Thomas said, the weather has permitted no incendiary activity at all.

"As soon as it started to give a couple hints of sunshine we'd get an inch of snow and three days of rain," he said.

Thomas said Tuesday was the first day this year when flames gained momentum and moved across the forest floor, rather than fizzle out like a birthday cake candle that falls into the frosting.

Forest Service officials planned to light prescribed fires on almost 4,000 acres of the Burnt-Powder Zone this spring.

Thomas doubts they'll do much more than 1,000.

"In my 11 years here this is the least amount of burning we've done," he said. "The weather's been great for irrigators, but not so good for prescribed burners."

Prescribed fires consume the needles, limbs and twigs that, if left to accumulate on the forest floor, can fuel summer wildfires.

Flames also spur the growth of grasses and shrubs that deer and elk, as well as domestic cattle, like to eat.

Thomas said Forest Service officials spark prescribed blazes only when conditions are right — dry enough that flames will creep across the ground without excessive prompting from torch-wielding workers, but not so dry that the fire might jump control lines or climb into the crowns of the tall trees prescribed fires are supposed to protect.

Until Tuesday the ground was simply too wet, Thomas said.

In a week or so it will be too green.

This spring's abundant moisture has helped to produce bumper crops of grasses and shrubs, Thomas said.

And succulent plants can douse fire almost as efficiently as rain can.

In any case, Thomas said conifer trees soon will display new buds. The trees are more vulnerable to the effects of fire at that time, he said, making prescribed blazes too risky.

Smoke from today's and Thursday's fires probably will be visible from Baker City, but Thomas said he doesn't expect soot-filled air to settle here as it sometimes does.

Forest Service officials will not light prescribed blazes Friday or at any time during the Memorial Day weekend, Thomas said.

After all, no one wants to suffer a coughing fit while haggling over trinkets at the Sumpter flea market.

"We know it can get pretty hectic up there," Thomas said.

Burning could resume Tuesday, May 27.