The forest fire fix

The forest fire fix

19 September 2009

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The smoke below created a white wall in the wind, shrouding what only minutes earlier had been unfettered views of Rimrock Lake and the Tieton Dam.

Richy Harrod and Jim Bailey knew they were watching thousands of acres beginning to transform from tinder-dry, overgrown forest to ashen remains.

Although this is the heart of fire season, Harrod and Bailey weren’t worried. Their expertise is fire, and they knew the one burning on the west end of Bethel Ridge was not a symptom, but a cure. They and others had, quite literally, written the prescription.

The ailment: an overcrowded forest of thick stands of fir, heavy undergrowth, fallen limbs and dead and sickly trees. It’s the legacy of a century of fire suppression that poses the very likely threat of huge catastrophic wildfires.

Months of planning and weeks of on-the-ground preparation had gone into what was a distinctively new sort of prescribed burn — one designed to restore the landscape to a more natural state where small or mid-sized, low-intensity fires burn low to the ground and don’t destroy larger, healthy and fire-resistant ponderosa pines.

But last week’s fire was nothing like the typical 1,000-acres-or-smaller prescribed burns.

It was comparatively huge, with 4,500 acres ignited by fuels dropped by helicopter in a total project area of 6,100 acres.

And it wasn’t done in the cooler months, when controlled burns are usually scheduled.

Both size and timing were by design.

“Honestly, I feel like up to now what we’ve been doing is like hobby burning,” said Bailey, the Naches Ranger District’s fire-fuels specialist. “So often we’ve been burning in April, May, October. From a restoration standpoint, all we’ve really been doing is making black spots on the ground.

“If you’re really trying to incorporate fire back into the landscape, you pretty much have to start burning in August and September, when natural fires have historically taken place.”

Reaction and reason

The fire was started Tuesday and as of late Friday, some light smoke lingered over parts of the Yakima Valley.

But on Wednesday morning, the telephone lines at the ranger district and environmental agencies were lighting up with complaints about the size of the fire and its inevitable smoke.

The Forest Service and the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency could point to air-quality numbers not far above normal, and by that afternoon the air quality was back within state standards. It has continued to improve since.

The fire, meanwhile, was doing precisely what its planners desired — essentially eliminating some thick stands of less-desirable trees like grand fir and lodgepole pine, while burning at a lower-intensity in other areas where the intent was simply to lessen the low-lying fuels.

This portion of Bethel Ridge was selected because of its vulnerability as a possible fire corridor. In its pre-fire condition, the forest was rife with budworm and bark beetle blight, heavy underbrush and highly flammable, top-to-bottom foliage of the numerous grand and Douglas firs. Those fire experts were convinced a wildfire beginning or spreading into this area could easily spread across the landscape.

How bad might that get? Think Chelan County in 1994 or the Los Angeles hills this summer. Or even British Columbia, where fires two months ago created such a smoky haze that a burn ban was ordered in Yakima County, 200 miles to the south.

Last week’s burn was the result of months of planning, said Harrod, one of only two deputy fire staff officers on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

“We don’t just come out here and light a match,” he said. “Where and how we burn is based on the tried-and-true computer models we use and also the experience of our people in the field. There’s an art that goes along with the actual implementation of a prescribed burn, and these folks are really good at it.”

Ping pong balls

Although Tuesday’s fire was the one everyone noticed, burning began three weeks earlier, with ground crews using drip torches to create fire breaks to keep flames from escaping if hot winds kicked up unexpectedly during the later planned aerial ignition.

There are two kinds of aerial ignitions. One is the helitorch — essentially a giant drip torch, dropping burning globs of fuel from a helicopter. The other is officially known either as the delayed aerial ignition device or the sphere dispenser, but typically called “the ping pong machine” because it looks like ping pong balls distributed by a device like the one used with lottery balls.

“When it comes down to comparing the two, the helitorch is much quicker as for getting the fire to the ground, because it’s dripping fire, a lot of it,” Harrod said. “It’s falling from the sky on fire, it gets into the trees and you can get crown fires going in a hurry. It’s not a really good tool for getting an underburn.”

The ping pong balls, though, are. Each contains a dry chemical, and in the instant before it’s released, it is automatically injected with a liquid chemical. In the 10 seconds it takes the two chemicals to react and burst into flame, the ball has typically reached the ground. Each disintegrating ball begins a small fire, which slowly expands and joins with those ignited by the other balls.

Different vantage points

From their vantage point at 6,223-foot Observation Point above the fire, Harrod and Bailey watched their long weeks of planning play out alongside a couple of air-quality specialists from the state Department of Ecology.

On the slopes below, things were going just as planned. Entire stands of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir were turned to ashen toothpicks, while next to them centuries-old larch and ponderosa pine trees stood strong and green. Though another 2,000 acres within the perimeter still remain to be burned — probably with another helicopter drop Monday — the fire experts were watching their prescription achieve its desired goal.

But not everyone was happy with the burn. Tieton resident Doug Nott — who, like his wife, suffers from asthma — woke up Wednesday morning to a wood-smoke smell so strong he thought his adjacent rental house was on fire.

“I understand why they control burn,” Nott said. “But a fire this size? (Forest Service fire officials) are not doing a favor to anybody.”

Cowiche basin resident Randy Ward felt the same way. Although he had read all about how a century of fire suppression had turned much of the Cascades’ eastern slopes into a fire-fuel-laden, unhealthy forest, he questioned the need for so large a controlled burn.

“I think they could have taken a more structured approach and not done it all at once,” he said. “You can’t reverse 100 years of bad decisions in a year or two. It’s going to take them a while. Or it should, anyway.”

Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency public-information officer Dave Caprile had already fielded his share of angry callers, each time trying to assuage their concerns while explaining the need for the controlled-burn process.

“What really has to happen,” he said, “is the community as a whole has to buy into it.”

Atop Bethel Ridge, as it turned out, the fire experts weren’t the only ones who understood that.

Bowhunter Matt Lewis was atop the ridge scouting for deer, not far from the wooded spot where he and his father were camped. The smoke in the air didn’t bother him in the least.

“Ah, you know,” he said, cocking his head. “Most of the time, it’s bad news, but hey … this is good news, right?”

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