Forest Service to let fire burn in wilderness

Forest Service to let fire burn in wilderness

11 July 2006

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Baker City, OR, USA — What’s become a summertime tradition in the Eagle Cap Wilderness resumed Monday as U.S. Forest Service officials decided to watch, but not fight, a small wildfire burning in the wilderness area northeast of Baker City.

The smoldering gray patch (indicated by an arrow) is burning in a wilderness area, far from people and private property. The Forest Service intends to keep an eye on the fire but allow it to burn up debris.

Lightning kindled the blaze on Cougar Ridge, about 14 air miles south of Wallowa.

Flames have charred a quarter-acre clump of subalpine fir trees, but that patch of forest is surrounded by stuff that’s much less combustible than the trees — green grass, rocks and lingering drifts of snow.

“Given the prevailing conditions I don’t really expect (the fire) to do a lot more,” Nick Lunde, a fire management officer at the Forest Service office in Enterprise, said this morning.

Lunde said he’s not sure when the blaze started. Hundreds of lightning bolts have battered the Eagle Cap over the past couple weeks, but most of the recent thunderstorms also doused the area with rain, which means the Cougar Ridge fire might have been smoldering for several days.

The Forest Service lookout atop Point Prominence, about six miles due west of the Cougar Ridge fire, spotted the orange flames just after midnight on Monday, Lunde said.

The lookout will continue to monitor the blaze, he said.

“We have pretty much around-the-clock observation on it,” Lunde said.

For more than a decade, a Forest Service policy has allowed officials to let lightning-caused blazes burn in remote places such as the Eagle Cap Wilderness, so long as flames don’t threaten people or private property.

Since 2000, Forest Service officials have employed that policy — previously known as prescribed natural fire, but now called Wildland Fire Use — several times in the Eagle Cap, which covers 361,000 acres and is the largest wilderness area in Oregon.

This is the fourth straight summer in which at least one Wildland Fire Use blaze has burned in the Eagle Cap.

Last summer there was only one such blaze in the wilderness, and it burned only one whitebark pine log.

In 2004, though, a trio of fires spread across about 570 acres several miles south of Cougar Ridge, and in 2003 a blaze burned 470 acres in the same area.

The purpose behind Wildland Fire Use is to let flames perform their historic role in the woods — specifically, to periodically char the limbs, twigs and other debris that accumulate on the ground.

Forest Service scientists concluded in the 1970s that the agency’s long-time strategy of putting out all fires as soon as possible had in many places made the forest more vulnerable to fire, because the twigs and other tinder had piled up.

The Forest Service has not allowed any blazes to burn in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City since 1996, when the Sloans Ridge fire grew faster than fire managers expected and eventually scorched 10,500 acres — including 140 acres of private property.


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