Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

A prescribed fire near Baker City produced an impressive plume of smoke Friday afternoon and evening, but on parts of the 236-acre area the blaze was more fizzle than fury.

“We probably accomplished about 50 percent of what we were hoping to get,” said Steve Hawkins, deputy fire staff fuels program manager for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. “That’s pretty typical of spring burning.”

The fire in Washington Gulch, about 4 miles west of town, was intended to burn piles of slash and other fuels left after a series of commercial logging and noncommercial tree-thinning projects about a decade ago, Hawkins said.

Another objective was to burn some of the young trees — mainly 6 feet or shorter — that have sprouted since the logging and thinning work, he said.

Those small trees can serve as “ladder fuels” — a route for flames to climb from the ground into the crowns of taller, mature trees, Hawkins said.

Friday’s fire burned into some of those thickets of young trees, but in other places the flames didn’t take hold on ground still damp from recently melted snow, he said.

“It was a patchy burn,” he said.

Washington Gulch is a vital cog in the Forest Service’s strategy to protect the nearby Baker City watershed from wildfire, Hawkins said.

Over the past 20 years or so the agency has done several thinning and prescribed burning projects near the boundaries of the 10,000-acre watershed.

Last spring the Forest Service burned about 100 acres near Marble Creek, several miles northwest of Washington Gulch.

Washington Gulch is a challenging place to light prescribed fires because the proximity to Baker City increases the chances that smoke will drift into town, Hawkins said.

Weather forecasters expected winds to push most of the smoke to the south, away from the city, but a brief switch in the wind direction that lasted for about two hours late Friday ushered smoke into town, Hawkins said.

The air quality index peaked at 102 late Friday, which is in the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category.

Saturday’s average was in the “good” category.

“We had a little more smoke in town than we wanted,” Hawkins said.

See more in the May 13, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.