BEND, Ore. – Lightning sparked the Black Crater Fire that spread across more than 9,000 acres this summer, forcing evacuations and threatening houses west of Sisters. But if lightning ignites a fire next summer on a specific parcel of land in Central Oregon, fire managers might let it burn.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Deschutes National Forest and the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management are developing a wildland fire-use plan that would allow blazes to burn in specific areas east of Bend, saying it could help the ecosystem.
Agency staff are now working with landowners to identify which areas within a 400,000-acre parcel of land, on the east side of the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District and west of Glass Buttes, that need to be protected. They are also mapping out areas where the fires could be used to naturally thin trees and bring more diversity to a landscape, as burns have done historically.
“We know that all of our ecosystems, forest ecosystems from the shrubs clear up to the top of the Cascades, they’re fire-dependent ecosystems,” said Leslie Weldon, Deschutes forest supervisor.
Foresters have thinned, mowed and conducted prescribed burns to reduce fuels and simulate the effect of wildfires in the Deschutes National Forest, Weldon said.
But those efforts cost money.
“Where we can help ourselves with some natural fires, we’d like to be able to,” Weldon said.
So the Forest Service and the BLM are setting up what’s called a wildland fire-use plan for resource management, which would be the first one on the Deschutes National Forest.
There was a lot of controversy and concern over the “Let it burn” policy after 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park grew out of control, Weldon said. But since then, managers have placed more emphasis on the criteria for deciding which fires will be allowed to burn, she said.
Under the plan, a fire would have to meet an extensive series of criteria to be allowed to burn. It would have to have started naturally, like from lightning, and occur in a specific area
And a wildland fire would have to have some positive impact on resources, he said.
“We’re just trying to see where best this tool might be applied,” said Dave Owens, fire planner for the Central Oregon Fire Management Service.
Fires could still be fought within parts of the parcel. The areas to burn depend on the balance of vegetation, fuels the fire is burning, weather conditions and projections of the fire’s spread and intensity to ensure that it wouldn’t get out of hand.
They also have to pay attention to the number of fires burning elsewhere, so that if a fire does need to be suppressed there are enough people and equipment available to put it out, Owens said.
Fires that fall under the plan could save the agencies money because they are generally staffed at a lower level than fires that are extinguished, Owens said.
For example, a fire in the Ochoco National Forest that fell under a similar plan cost somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 and burned 1,300 acres. If it had been suppressed, it probably would have cost more than $1 million, Owens said.
Wildland fires could also save the agencies money on forest treatments, Weldon said.
Owens said the Forest Service and BLM hope to complete a draft of the plan in the next few weeks and get input from the public. Officials hope to have it signed sometime before fall.
After that, the agencies could begin pretreatments to encourage low-intensity fires, and perhaps as early as next summer wildland fires could be put to use, Weldon said.
“What we’re excited about is just being able to put another important tool to use for us,” Weldon said.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)