Lightning, for all its faults, works cheap.

The federal government didn’t need to delve into the Treasury to ignite the fire that started July 14 in Granite Gulch, in the heart of the Eagle Cap Wilderness near the Minam River. Lightning did the job.

Since the fire awakened from its smoldering slumber last week it has done the sorts of work that the Forest Service, through its prescribed fire program, in other places might spend many thousands of dollars to accomplish.

The Granite Gulch fire is the latest in a series of more than 20 lightning blazes that have over the past 25 years, with a few exceptions, burned naturally in the Eagle Cap, Oregon’s biggest wilderness at 570 square miles.

It’s a wise policy — from the ecological standpoint as well as the financial.

Ample scientific research shows that excluding wildfire from forests — the stated goal of the federal government on public lands for much of the 20th century — can lead to bigger blazes by allowing logs, limbs and other combustible debris to pile up.

Avoiding such conditions is one reason the Forest Service and other agencies light fires intentionally.

The Eagle Cap, though, is uniquely suited to allowing lightning fires to burn. The wilderness is not only massive, but the terrain and vegetation are situated such that in most cases flames will be confined by natural firebreaks such as wet meadows and rocky slopes where few if any trees grow.

As for those exceptions mentioned earlier, the Forest Service did call in a helicopter this week to drop water on part of the Granite Gulch fire to slow its spread. Had the agency treated the fire as a typical blaze from the start, it likely would have incurred that expense — and more.

Over the past quarter century, lightning fires that the Forest Service monitored rather than fought have burned across more than 5,000 acres in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. These blazes haven’t diminished the qualities that make the wilderness a special place. But they have reduced the risk of larger fires in the near future, and without racking up the multimillion-dollar firefighting tabs typical outside the wilderness. That’s a bargain.

– Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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