Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden and Sen. Ron Wyden have sent a letter to the Forest Service’s regional office asking the agency to make it a priority to thin forests in Baker City’s watershed to reduce the risk of a large wildfire.

The bipartisan letter — Walden is a Republican, Wyden a Democrat — was sent Wednesday to Jim Peña, regional forester at the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region office in Portland, and deputy regional forester Dianne Guidry.

The Pacific Northwest Region includes the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, which manages most of the 10,000 acres that comprise the city’s watershed.

Baker City obtains its drinking water from a dozen streams and springs in the watershed, a densely forested area on the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains about 10 miles west of town.

In their letter, the lawmakers wrote that “we have both heard from community leaders who are concerned about the potential for large scale fire within the watershed and the impacts that would have on the city’s drinking water.”

One of those leaders is Baker City Councilor Arvid Andersen.

Andersen, who is also a professional forestry consultant, has made the watershed his top priority as one of the city’s seven elected representatives.

Last September Andersen and Baker City Manager Fred Warner Jr. met with Jeff Tomac, then the ranger for the Whitman District, which includes the watershed.

(Tomac later moved to take a Forest Service job in Montana.)

The City Council has also discussed the watershed, and the top goal on the list councilors approved in April is “maintain and enhance water security.”

The top subgoal under the category is “Continue to make water security a priority through pursuit of fuel reduction, fencing, fire breaks and adequate funding.”

Andersen’s concern, and it’s one that city and Forest Service officials have discussed for more than a quarter century, is that a fire that burned over much of the watershed would foul the streams and springs, first with ash and later with mud.

Andersen cites the two flash floods along the South Fork of the Burnt River — one in September 2017 and one earlier this month — that originated in areas burned during the 2015 Rail fire.

He expects similar events would happen the first time heavy rain fell on the watershed following an extensive fire.

Such a scenario would likely force the city to find an alternate water source for the short-term and to build a water filtration plant, which could cost $15 million or more, to tap the watershed in the future.

“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Andersen said last year. “It’s just a matter of time. It’s just dumb luck that it hasn’t burned yet.”

A study in the mid-1990s by researchers from the University of Washington adds credence to Andersen’s claim that a large fire in the watershed is overdue, statistically speaking.

There hasn’t been such a blaze for more than a century, in part because the Forest Service quickly responds to the blazes, most of them sparked by lightning, that happen in the watershed.

Emily Heyerdahl and James Agee studied the fire history of the watershed in the 1990s by looking at fire scars on trees and taking core samples of trees.

In their 1996 report, the researchers wrote that in the drier forests of the watershed, including south-facing slopes more exposed to sunlight, fires burned about every 11 years dating back to about 1646.

The cooler, wetter north-facing slopes in the watershed burned less frequently, but Heyerdahl and Agee didn’t have sufficient data to estimate the average interval between those fires.

Generally speaking, fires in the denser forests that typically grow in wetter, more shaded areas happen much less frequently than blazes on the warmer, drier south slopes, but when those wetter areas burn the fires tend to be more severe.

In their letter, Wyden and Walden wrote that work has started, involving the Forest Service and the city, to pick areas where removing some trees could create fuelbreaks — areas where fire crews could potentially slow or even stop a fire.

The Forest Service spent more than $2.2 million over several years during the late 1990s and early 2000s to make fuelbreaks. That work focused on a narrow strip along the Pipeline Road, the road that forms the eastern boundary of the watershed and under which the city’s main water supply pipe runs, and on the south end of the watershed near Elk Creek, the southernmost of the streams from which the city diverts water.

Ryan Falk, acting ranger for the Whitman District, said Wednesday that he will be working with the Wallowa-Whitman’s leadership team to plan fuelbreak projects this year. If the forest can allocate money — something Falk said Walden and Wyden have vowed to help with — tree cutting could potentially happen next year.

Andersen said he’s optimistic that recent meetings between city and Forest Service officials, and the letter from Wyden and Walden, will maintain momentum for the effort to protect the watershed.

“It’s encouraging that both the senator and the representative are working together on that,” Andersen said.

He admits that the relatively sluggish pace of the project can be frustrating.

“It’s like steering an oil tanker — it’s pretty slow,” Andersen said.

Although he supports the current plans for firebreaks, Andersen believes that reducing the threat to the watershed long term will require more extensive thinning of the forest throughout the area.

But that would be both more complicated and more expensive, Falk said.

Widespread logging in the watershed, including the potential for commercial logging as opposed to the noncommercial thinning to create fuelbreaks, would require the Forest Service to conduct a lengthy environmental study and give the public a chance to comment and, potentially, to object.

Watershed projects would be more complex as well because much of the area is a roadless area, Falk said.

“There’s a lot of interest from the public in what we do in inventoried roadless areas,” he said.

Not a new concern

Almost exactly 25 years before Walden and Wyden sent the letter to the Forest Service’s regional office, Wallowa-Whitman and Baker City officials led a tour of the watershed.

The issues discussed during that trip in June 1993, and the threats examined, all but mimic the recent conversations among Andersen, Falk and other city and Forest Service officials.

During the tour, Bruce Countryman, a silviculturist for the Wallowa-Whitman, said “it’s going to take a while to reduce that hazard no matter how fast we push this.”

Bruce Kaufman, then the Wallowa-Whitman’s public information officer, made a statement that echoes Andersen’s comment from last year.

“Every summer you get by,” Kaufman said, “you thank your lucky stars.”