Human-caused wildfires are troubling because they can’t be predicted, Todd Pederson said, but the danger is even more acute when smoke blocks views like a pea soup fog.
In these conditions it’s difficult to see (or smell) a blaze unless you’re standing beside it, Pederson said.
Fortunately, groups of hikers in the Eagle Cap Wilderness not only noticed three human-caused fires in a recent 5-day period, but they doused the blazes and then reported them to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest so firefighting crews could hike in and make sure any embers were cold, Pederson said.
He’s an assistant fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman’s Wallowa Fire Zone, based in Enterprise.
The trio of fires, all of which happened in the same small section of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, illustrate the persistent fire danger even as summer wanes and nighttime temperatures dip.
“Our fire danger just keeps increasing,” Pederson said.
As a result, starting Saturday the Wallowa-Whitman banned all campfires, including in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon’s largest wilderness at 365,000 acres.
Since mid-August, campfires had been allowed only in designated campgrounds and in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Each of the three fires was at Six Mile Meadow, Pederson said.
That’s a popular place for backpackers to camp while hiking from Wallowa Lake to the Lake Basin, Glacier Lake and other places in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
As its name implies, the meadow is about 6 miles from the Wallowa Lake trailhead, which means access for firefighters, who have to hike in, takes quite a bit of time, Pederson said.
The first fire was reported Wednesday, the second on Thursday and the latest, and largest, blaze was reported Sunday.
The Sunday fire burned an area about 20 feet by 40 feet, Pederson said.
A group of 18 hikers carried water from the West Fork of the Wallowa River, which flows near the meadow, to douse the flames, he said. One of the hikers used an emergency notification device to report the fire to the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office, which then forwarded the report to the Forest Service.
Forest Service firefighters hiked to the site Sunday and returned Monday to make sure the fire didn’t rekindle.
One of last week’s fires clearly was an abandoned campfire that had spread, Pederson said.
The origin of the other two, including Sunday’s larger blaze, isn’t as obvious, although they were definitely human-caused as there has been no lightning in the area recently, he said.
Either or both could have been campfires or warming fires, Pederson said, although neither fire started in a ring of rocks, as is typical with campfires.
Pederson said fire managers worry about human-caused blazes in part because, unlike lightning, they can’t be tracked by sensors.
Managers are even more anxious now because the dense smoke makes it all but impossible for a person to distinguish a new fire amid the gray background.
The Forest Service’s network of fire lookouts, for instance, are in effect “smoked out,” he said — meaning they can’t do their usual work of spotting even a thin tendril of smoke from dozens of miles away.
The smoke, which extends to about 15,000 feet altitude, renders aerial reconnaissance equally useless, Pederson said.
“Having the public report fires is a huge help for us,” he said.
Pederson said he’s especially grateful to the groups of hikers who not only called in the three fires at Six Mile Meadow, but they also extinguished the blazes.
“We want to put out a big thank you to those folks,” he said.