Forest Service mowing woods west of Bend

Video: Vegetation project aims to reduce wildfire risk

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

The buzz of lawnmowers is a sure signal of spring, but it can be heard these days in an unusual place — the woods west of Bend.

As part of an effort to reduce the risk of intense wildfire in the forest close to town, the Deschutes National Forest is running mowers around popular recreation spots such as Phil’s Trail and the Lair, said Alex Enna, an assistant fire management officer with the forest.

“(The big tractors are) something you might see mowing the rough on a golf course,” he said Wednesday.

The mowing is part of the West Bend Project, which the forest started last fall. Divided into sections, the project starts with logging and thinning, followed by mowing and then prescribed fire. The logging, thinning and mowing are expected to continue around the 26,000-acre project area until 2020. The prescribed burning of more than 19,000 acres probably will occur over the next 10 years or so. Throughout the work there will be periodic closures of trails. The U.S. Forest Service is posting updates on closures on an online map, which is also available for mobile devices.

Although the current mowing, which is 75 percent done, is close to the Lair — a popular cluster of mountain bike trails — it hasn’t caused any closures, Enna said. The 234 acres of prescribed burning planned for this spring, in late April or early May, should cause closures along the Marvin’s Garden trail, though.

Prescribed fires are controlled burns lit by wildland firefighters when weather conditions permit . The idea is to have lower intensity fires than if wildfire burned through the same woods in the heat of summer. Another way to lower the intensity of the burns is to take away vegetation so the flames don’t burn as high. The mowing lowers the height of the brush, which in some parts of the woods is as high as the tractors doing the mowing.

The mowing, which started the first week of February, should be done by the end of this month and will cover 1,200 acres in all.

The two people driving the mowers are veteran equipment operators for Deschutes National Forest used to maneuvering bulldozers through the woods during fire season to create containment lines. Mowing the woods is much different from mowing a lawn, said Karen Morse, one of the operators.

“You have to be on top of your game, watching where you are going and being ready to stop,” she said. That’s because there are rocks, stumps and other obstacles that could be hidden by the brush.

Although they look like a tractor from the golf course, the big green John Deeres used by the Forest Service have mowing setups reinforced for the rugged brush of the woods. The modifications include additional metal framework around the mower and skid plates under the tractors.

“They definitely weren’t made for what we are using them for, but we beefed them up pretty good,” said Ron Baltzor, another equipment operator with the forest.

The mower is 7 feet wide, the same width as the tractor.

“So if I can fit the tractor between the trees,” Baltzor said, “the mower will follow.”

The look of the woods before and after the mowing is noticeable. Before, the brush is tall and thick. After, the brush is trimmed close to the ground, giving an almost park-like appearance. Following the flames, the trees will have red needles and blackened trunks that will fade as the forest regrows.

“It will look different,” Enna said.

Fire is a natural part of ponderosa pine forests, like those found west of Bend, Enna said.

“Prescribed fire is our method of reintroducing that,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com