Fire officials from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest have pulled a new tool from their belts in their campaign to construct a wider strategy that allows flames to play their historic, and sometimes beneficial, role on public lands.
For the first time on the Wallowa-Whitman, officials are giving a lightning-sparked fire an incendiary assist.
But there’s a major difference between that fire, called Hollow Log, burning in the Alder Spring area about 24 miles northeast of Joseph, and the Granite Gulch fire that’s been burning in the Eagle Cap Wilderness since mid July, said Nathan Goodrich, fire management officer for the northern part of the Wallowa-Whitman.
The Hollow Log fire, ignited by lightning during last weekend’s storm spree that pummeled the region with several thousand bolts, is not in a wilderness area.
That means Wallowa-Whitman officials can’t monitor the fire and in effect let it spread naturally, as is the case with fires in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
The tactic with the Hollow Log fire is called “appropriate suppression response,” Goodrich said.
The basic concept, and one the Wallowa-Whitman is using for the first time with the Hollow Log fire, is to let a lightning fire grow, and indeed to help it do so by igniting vegetation as in a prescribed fire.
But that growth, in contrast to a wilderness fire such as Granite Gulch, has a predetermined, and well-defined, limit, Goodrich said.
After the Hollow Log fire was reported Sunday afternoon, forest officials discussed whether to try to extinguish the blaze as soon as possible — the Forest Service’s strategy in the vast majority of fires that start outside the Eagle Cap Wilderness — or whether the fire, which had burned about one-tenth of an acre, was a candidate for the untried appropriate suppression response.
Goodrich said they decided the fire was well-suited for that strategy. Over the next two days fire crews, taking advantage of the roads that surround the fire, set up containment lines around a 92-acre area.
Starting today, crews planned to ignite spots near the fire, which was stifled but not doused by rain during the weekend, and encourage it to spread.
The goal, said Andy Hayes, an incident command trainee for the Forest Service, is to have the Hollow Log fire eventually cover the entire 92 acres.
He said that’s likely to happen over three to four days, with warmer, dry weather forecast.
But forest officials emphasize that fire crews will ensure the blaze stays within the control lines.
“We plan to aggressively put this thing out,” said Noel Livingston, the Wallowa-Whitman’s fire management officer.
Goodrich said he’s excited about the opportunity to use a lightning fire in a new way.
“We’re embarking on what I hope is a bright future for doing this,” he said.
The Hollow Log fire is burning in an area that historically was dominated by mature, widely spaced ponderosa pine trees, Hayes said.
But during the past century so, as the Forest Service has largely suppressed fire, Douglas-fir and grand fir trees have encroached on the ponderosa stand.
The fir trees are much more vulnerable to fire than the pines, he said.
The goal with the Hollow Log fire is basically the same as when the Forest Service purposely lights prescribed fires in the spring or fall — to reduce the amount of fuel on the ground, including encroaching young fir trees.
This reintroduction of fire can start the process of returning a forest to its natural condition, as well as lower the risk of a fire that could spread from the firs into the crowns of the ponderosa pines.
Mulling options with the Hollow Log fire was not the only decision Goodrich and other Wallowa-Whitman officials had to make in the wake of the weekend lightning onslaught.
Bolts also started four fires on the west side of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, several miles from the Granite Gulch fire.
Because those fires are within the wilderness, officials could in theory treat them as they have the Granite Gulch fire and let them burn naturally (although a helicopter has dropped water on part of the Granite Gulch fire to slow its growth, and crews installed sprinklers to protect a bridge across the Minam River).
Goodrich said officials consider multiple criteria in such cases, including the proximity of the fire to the wilderness boundary and to private land, how much longer the fire season is likely to last, and the types of fuel near the fire, which greatly affects how quickly the flames could spread.
The first and largest of the quartet of new wilderness fires started near Amelia Spring, about 14 miles east of Union, and burned 32 acres.
Goodrich said he didn’t have to progress far down the criteria checklist before deciding the Amelia fire was a poor candidate to be treated like the Granite Gulch fire.
Distance is a major reason — the Amelia fire is about a mile from the wilderness boundary, and it’s even closer to a parcel of private property in the Catherine Creek Meadows.
“We decided we’re not going to deal with another (fire in the wilderness,” Goodrich said.
Instead, officials summoned 16 smokejumpers from the air base at McCall, Idaho, to start working to put out the Amelia fire.
They were later joined by the Vale Hotshots and by a private firefighting crew from Grayback Forestry in La Grande.
The Amelia fire was officially contained at 8:38 p.m. Monday.
Goodrich said Tuesday that it’s “more than likely” that officials would have made the same decision about the Amelia fire even if the Granite Gulch fire wasn’t burning, largely due to the Amelia fire’s nearness to the wilderness boundary.
The three other lightning fires were farther from the wilderness boundary, but ultimately officials decided to put them out as well, Goodrich said.
One fire was near Rock Creek, about 3 miles east of the Amelia fire, one was near Lackeys Hole, about 2 miles northeast, and the third was near the confluence of the North Minam River and Sturgill Creek, about 4 miles northeast.
In the case of the Rock Creek fire, Goodrich said factors that prompted the decision to extinguish the fire included its position on the south side of the Minam River, near the base of a canyon with a dense thickets of timber that could carry a fire to and potentially beyond the wilderness boundary.
Ultimately, the complexity of the situation — the Granite Gulch fire burning, crews working on the Amelia fire, and with several weeks of fire season likely remaining — Goodrich said forest officials decided they would put out all the wilderness fires as rapidly as possible.
Granite Gulch fire
The blaze that kicked off what Goodrich concedes has been an interesting, but hectic, couple of weeks, continues to spread slowly to the west on the north slope of the Minam River Canyon.
The fire is estimated at 1,800 acres.
Adam Wing, an incident command trainee who took a surveillance flight over the fire Tuesday morning, said rain over the weekend slowed the fire, but it continues to smolder, mainly staying on the ground.
Goodrich said he relishes working on the Wallowa-Whitman while the forest is widening its strategy for dealing with wildfire, and in some cases, as with the Granite Gulch and Hollow Log fires, allowing flames to rid the forest of fuels that could, if allowed to continue to accumulate, feed a damaging blaze.
He acknowledges, though, that the new approach raises the risk of a fire spreading outside the wilderness. And of course fires produce smoke, which can bother local residents.
Moreover, there is the widespread notion that fire is always destructive.
“We’re kind of combatting the Smokey Bear campaign,” Goodrich said.
The venerable mascot’s message is still valid, Goodrich said — a fact reflected in the Wallowa-Whitman’s approach, which in almost every case is to douse a fire as quickly as possible.
But the more nuanced policy in place now, particularly within the Eagle Cap Wilderness, reflects the research showing that the exclusion of fire, in places, can harm rather than help the forest.