Aftermath of prescribed fires canlook bad but be good for forest

January 18, 2007 12:00 am
This area of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest was intentionally burned Oct. 24. (Baker City Herald/Kari Borgen).
This area of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest was intentionally burned Oct. 24. (Baker City Herald/Kari Borgen).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Jim Smeraglio drove along Highway 7, through the ponderosa pine forest beside Phillips Reservoir, and he was disgusted by what he saw.

What Smeraglio, who lives near Sumpter, saw during his drive last month is the ashy aftermath of a fire.

He saw the black skeletons of young pines, most of them Christmas tree height.

He also saw older, considerably thicker and taller pines, some with clumps of their long needles tinted rust-red rather than their normal dusky green.

"I thought the Oregon motto is keep Oregon green," Smeraglio said.

Noel Livingston drove through this same forest, about the same time, and he was elated by what he saw.

The same scorched pines.

The same red needles.

Livingston works as the fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service's Burnt-Powder Fire Zone.

His crew ignited the blaze which, on the afternoon of Oct. 24, swept through a 225-acre swath of forest and meadow between Highway 7 and the reservoir, about 20 miles southwest of Baker City.

All the land is publicly owned, part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

This intentional blaze — what Livingston and other Forest Service officials call a "prescribed fire" — did precisely what he hoped it would do.

The flames killed those fledgling pines, for instance. Those small trees, which sprouted after the Forest Service lit a prescribed fire in the same place about 15 years ago, sucked up moisture and soil nutrients which the mature pines need to thrive, Livingston said. The older trees should grow faster now that they're not competing with the thickets of puny pines.

The Oct. 24 prescribed fire also spread into the lower limbs of some of the taller trees, killing the needles and causing them to redden as Smeraglio noticed.

This, too, pleases Livingston.

He believes more than 99 percent of the older pines will survive. As for those trees' lower limbs, the flames acted like pruning shears, Livingston said. He wanted to get rid of those limbs because they can serve as steps which flames from a summer wildfire — the sort of blaze Forest Service officials can neither predict nor, in many cases, easily extinguish — can climb to reach the pines' crowns.

The Oct. 24 blaze also consumed the ground's carpet of needles and twigs which, like the low-hanging limbs, could fuel a summer wildfire.

By pruning the older pines, killing the younger ones and clearing combustible debris from the forest floor, the prescribed blaze helped to further the Forest Service's aim for the area around Phillips Reservoir — specifically, to allow the forest to mature into a classic old-growth stand, Livingston said.

The sort of stand, he said, that dominated the Sumpter Valley landscape before 1890, when workers began laying tracks for the Sumpter Valley Railroad — the famous "Stump Dodger" that hauled millions of board-feet of old-growth pine logs to mills in Baker City.

That's not the sort of forest Smeraglio sees.

"I know what a natural forest should look like, and it seems like they're going against nature's way, trying to make it look like a park," he said.

Smeraglio called the results of the Oct. 24 prescribed burn "an awful eyesore."

"I wonder how long are we going to stand around with our hands in our pockets and let these caretakers of the forest get away with turning Oregon's beautiful woodlands into a burnt mess," he said.

Livingston said he understands Smeraglio's concerns.

Although Livingston said he has not heard any other complaints about the Oct. 24 prescribed burn, he knows that some people don't like to look at fire-scarred forests.

Several people criticized the Forest Service when it conducted a similar prescribed burn beside Highway 7, complete with red needles and black bark, in the early 1990s, he said.

Despite the precautions which Forest Service crews take — they don't ignite fires when the weather is too hot and dry, for instance — flames are hard to tame.

The Oct. 24 blaze, for instance, crept into the crowns of some taller pines rather than stopping at the lower branches, as Livingston prefers.

"Fire is a broad-brush tool, it's not a surgical took," Livingston said.

"Those red needles are highly visible, and they bother people," he said. "They wonder why are we killing trees rather than harvesting them."

Livingston answers prescribed fire critics by claiming that what they see — the scorched bark and dead needles that so bothered Smeraglio, to use two examples — can be misleading.

"Most of that disappears in a year or two," Livingston said.

He estimates that the Oct. 24 burn killed fewer than 1 percent of the older pines.

Yet Livingston said he considers prescribed burns beneficial even if the flames kill as many as 10 percent of those mature trees.

"So this one was absolutely a success," he said. "I was very pleased with the results."

Smeraglio, though, worries that the fire charred the grass and shrubs that deer like to eat.

But Steve Hawkins, the assistant fire management officer for the Burnt-Powder zone, said the Oct. 24 blaze should spur the growth of grass as well as bitterbrush, the latter being one of the more important foods for deer.

Livingston said Forest Service plans call for lighting prescribed fires in the forests around Phillips Reservoir every decade or so, to prevent seedling pines from getting a roothold.