Steve Hawkins is starting to get a trifle annoyed by the rain.
And, on occasion, by the snow.
About every time he’s been ready to burn this autumn, another wintry Pacific cold front rolls in and fouls everything up.
Hawkins is the fuels program manager for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
He helps to plan the Wallowa-Whitman’s annual fall prescribed burning program, and this year’s version, with up to 15,000 acres on the slate, is ambitious.
But a series of storms over the past couple weeks has dampened Hawkins’ enthusiasm.
More to the point, they’ve dampened the grass and pine needles in the areas scheduled for prescribed fire this fall.
“Those fine fuels need to be dry enough to carry fire,” Hawkins said on Tuesday afternoon, just as the latest entry in the parade of precipitation was pelting the Wallowa-Whitman.
“Every three or four days we’ve had rain or snow. It’s been a difficult year to plan and to get things done,” Hawkins said.
The metronomic meteorologic pattern has foiled only one type of prescribed fire, though — broadcast burning.
Those are projects where crews seek to let flames spread across relatively large areas — typically 100 acres or more in a day.
Broadcast burning depends on the fine fuels Hawkins mentioned — grass, pine needles and other forest litter left dry by summer’s heat — being relatively dry.
Generally those fuels need four to five days of dry weather to reach that level, he said.
But the weather hasn’t often granted quite that long an interval.
An exception was Monday, when crews burned about 450 acres near Goose Creek about 20 miles northeast of Baker City.
Hawkins said that fire, which included some areas that had been logged several years ago, was successful.
But the storm that arrived Tuesday morning started the cycle anew.
Hawkins said it’s still possible, if more typical October weather prevails, that Wallowa-Whitman officials will be able to make progress on the prescribed burning schedule.
“The burning window usually goes through October,” he said. “We’re just waiting for the weather to give us an opportunity.”
Among the places that would be prime candidates for broadcast burning later this month are the Foothills project in Washington Gulch, about five miles west of Baker City.
Crews burned about 236 acres at Washington Gulch in May.
Hawkins said planned burning in the Sumpter Valley and Burnt River Valley areas is also possible in these projects:
• Deer, 1 mile northeast of Sumpter, 750 acres
• Union Miners, 2 miles north of Phillips Reservoir, 500 acres
• Little Dean, 1 mile south of Phillips Reservoir, 500 acres
• Mile 9/Sheep, 5 miles west of Unity, 500 acres
• Broman, 8 miles northwest of Unity, 500 acres
Forest managers “prescribe” fire to achieve a variety of goals, including reducing the amount of combustible material on the ground following logging, spurring the growth of forage, and reducing competition among the remaining trees.
Prescribed fire can also reduce the risk of future summer wildfires by creating open areas that are easier for fire crews to defend if flames are advancing.
In general the goal is to allow fire to perform its natural and historical role in the Blue Mountains, where fire history researchers have determined that fires sparked by lightning are a regular and vital process in maintaining healthy forests.
“By getting good fire back into the forest, we’re protecting communities while restoring and sustaining the land,” Hawkins said. “We appreciate the cooperation and understanding of our stakeholders as we work toward our shared goal of healthy landscapes in Eastern Oregon.”
Although weather has foiled broadcast burning plans, conditions have been nearly ideal for another part of the prescribed fire program — burning piles of trees, limbs and other debris.
Hawkins said workers have been able to burn dozens of piles along the Anthony Lakes Highway and in the Anthony Lakes area this fall.
That’s the last step in a three-step process that’s part of the East Face project, which involves the Forest Service, BLM, Oregon Department of Forestry and private landowners along the east face of the Elkhorns stretching from the Anthony Lakes Highway north nearly to La Grande.
The East Face project, which started several years ago and will continue for at least several more, is intended to reduce the risk of wildfires and improve forest health. The project also calls for some of the larger commercial timber sales in the region over the past 25 years.
Hawkins said the first phase involves cutting trees in a narrow strip along the Anthony Lakes Highway and near Anthony Lakes Campground and Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort ski area. The next year workers pile the trees and other debris and the third year, weather permitting, the piles are burned.
The idea is to use the Anthony Lakes Highway as a “strategic fuelbreak,” Hawkins said — a place where fire crews could focus their efforts to stop a summer blaze.
There are multiple priorities for protection in the area, he said, including the ski area, campgrounds, a group of about two dozen privately owned summer cabins on public land nearby, and a power line.
The piling and burning is not the end of the project, Hawkins said.
Commercial logging is also planned in the next few years, including a few units beside or close to the Anthony Lakes Highway near the Dutch Flat trailhead road and the Gorham Butte area.
The Wallowa-Whitman has created a new interactive map on its website so the public can track prescribed burning. Go to https://go.usa.gov/xVseH. Under “prescribed fire information” click on “Click here for a map of prescribed burn units which may be active this fall.”
Below is the full schedule of possible prescribed burns on the forest this fall. As Hawkins noted, unsuitable weather means the forest almost certainly won’t complete the entire slate this year.
Whitman Ranger District (projects not already listed above)
• Barnard, 6 miles northwest of Halfway, 250 acres
• Sparta, 2 miles north of Sparta, 250 acres
• Pine Valley, 5.5 miles north of Halfway, 500 acres
Wallowa Fire Zone
• Chesnimnus Elk, 30 miles northeast of Enterprise, 1,992 acres
• B-Vine, 30 miles north/northeast of Enterprise, 2,259 acres
• Muddy Sled, 20 miles north of Enterprise, 2,367 acres
• Cold Canal, 20 miles southeast of Joseph, 1,570 acres
• Puderbaugh, 25 miles southeast of Joseph, 3,293 acres
Grande Ronde Fire Zone
• Horse Fly, 13 miles southwest of La Grande near Vey Meadows and Blue Springs, 621 acres
• Trail, 8 miles northwest of La Grande near Mount Emily, 714 acres
• Birdtrack, 9 miles southwest of La Grande, 2,120 acres
• Sandbox, 12 miles southeast of Union near Catherine Creek Sno-Park, 744 acres