USA — A wildfire that got a boost from shifting winds and threatened an Eastern Oregon town began as a smaller blaze that was being managed rather than suppressed.
Fire supervisors working in five national forests in Oregon and Washington have the authority to hold back on some fires, designating them as beneficial to the forest.
“It gives us the opportunity to treat areas with natural fire that before we couldn’t,” said Chris Hoff, fire management officer for the multiagency Central Oregon Fire Management Service.
The fire in wilderness in the Ochoco National Forest was being managed under the “wildland fire use” designation before the wind shifted. Fire managers said Monday it was threatening the small town of Mitchell in Wheeler County, as well as a campground and a fire lookout.
“The wind shifted and came out of the southeast, and it went exactly where we didn’t want it to go,” fire team spokesman Robin Vora told The Oregonian newspaper. “The objective changed from wildland fire use to all-out suppression.”
Wildland-fire-use designations cover only a fraction of the many thousands of wildland fires each year. In 2007, there were 85,822 wildland fires in the United States – 346 managed in the new method, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
“More forests are creating their implementation direction, so we’ll see this tool in use on more forests in the future,” said Glen Sachet, regional spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Last month, the Ochoco National Forest completed a plan for managing wildland fires. Others that have gone through the process, Sachet said: the Okanogan-Wenatchee, Wallowa-Whitman, Deschutes and Willamette national forests.
The planning gives forest supervisors the ability to make forest health, not suppression, the primary goal.
“Right now these things are creeping around, cleaning up those heavy piles of downed material. It’s going to create more grasses, it’s going to reduce the risk of losing those stands,” said Jeff Walter, supervisor of the Ochoco National Forest.
Experimentation with wildland fire use started in wilderness areas several decades ago, and the program grew steadily until 1996, when three such fires escaped containment in Oregon, two burning onto private land, said Louisa Evers regional fire ecologist for the Forest Service. Following a moratorium, some forest managers again started using the designation.
The interest among land managers is driven by concerns over forest health, the cost of thinning overstocked woods and fear about ballooning firefighting budgets.
The suppression versus beneficial burn debate arose again earlier this month after a helicopter crash killed nine people in Northern California. Critics questioned why firefighters were being asked to battle remote blazes that did not threaten structures or private property. In that case, fire managers said the risk to public health from poor air quality as a result of the numerous fires was among the reasons for attacking the fires.
Before marking a fire for wildland fire use, managers must consider such factors as the time of year, proximity to private land, potential for fire growth and social and economic impacts of a fire. If those factors suggest there is no major risk, Hoff said, firefighters can manage the fire differently.
In the case of four fires in the Ochoco National Forest burning in wilderness areas, a team has been called in from around the region to monitor the blazes and, if necessary, try to check or direct their growth using burnouts or hand crews. But as in the case of the Ochoco fire, after one jumps predetermined containment areas, the focus returns to suppression.