A unique partnership could turn a prescribed burn slated for Bend’s southern edge into a valuable learning experience.

The U.S. Forest Service is planning to ignite around 120 acres near the High Desert Museum this week, including 74 acres on the museum’s property.

But rather than closing and waiting for the smoke to subside, the museum is using the situation to educate visitors about the role prescribed fires play in Central Oregon’s forests.

The museum is planning to host tours near the burn, as well as presentations by both museum and Forest Service experts.

“One of our main goals for the museum is to be a center for community conversation,” said Dana Whitelaw, executive director of the High Desert Museum. “This is a unique opportunity.”

The burn is part of the Forest Service’s larger effort to reduce the buildup of dry grasses, pine needles and other fuel for wildfires near Central Oregon’s cities. After decades without the consistent, low-intensity fires that would occur historically in ponderosa pine forests, controlled burns help reintroduce fire to a changed ecosystem, according to Louise Shirley, Donald M. Kerr curator of natural history for the museum.

And that’s just as true for the High Desert Museum, which is located on 130 acres adjacent to the Deschutes National Forest. Whitelaw said Brooks-Scanlon logged the parcel in the 1920s and 1930s. The lumber mill donated the parcel in 1979, and the museum opened in 1982, according to The Bulletin’s archives.

Alex Enna, prescribed fire manager for the Deschutes National Forest, said the museum ignited about an acre of the property, near the otter exhibit, in the early 2000s, but much of the rest of the parcel hasn’t seen fire in decades.

“It’s been probably more than 100 years,” he said.

Whitelaw said wildfires are the biggest threat the museum faces, thanks to its location near the edge of the forest. While the museum has never had to evacuate staff because of a wildfire, Whitelaw said staff has a detailed evacuation plan designed to protect wildlife and artifacts.

“We always keep an eye on those burns during the summer,” she said.

Whitelaw said museum staff had been planning to reignite the 1-acre parcel this year, using Forest Service assistance. The burn dovetailed with the federal agency’s plan to ignite land adjacent to the museum, and the two entities struck an agreement.

“We knew the museum was interested in doing a prescribed burn,” he said. “Might as well get it all done.”

The Forest Service is planning to conduct the burn in phases, according to Enna. He said the first phase will occur on museum property between U.S. Highway 97 and the museum entrance, while the second phase will include a mix of museum and Forest Service property to the south of the exhibits. The project will conclude with a burn near a dirt road by the edge of the property, according to Enna.

On the day of the burn, which has not been determined, the museum will remain closed until noon to allow time for flames to subside near the entrance. From there, Whitelaw said the museum will offer hourly guided walking tours over to the fire, with informational talks from Forest Service employees and the museum’s natural history staff about the value of prescribed burns.

Enna added that visitors will be able to get within 30 to 40 feet of the burn while it’s occurring, giving them a better perspective on the organization that goes into setting up a controlled burn.

Enna said the Forest Service is hoping for winds out of the northwest on the day of the burn, which would carry smoke away from Highway 97 as well as the museum itself. However, waiting for ideal weather conditions makes the ignition a challenge to plan in advance. Possibilities include Monday, Wednesday and Sunday.

“It has been an elusive process to pin down the burn day,” Whitelaw said.

The indoor portion of the museum will remain open until 5 p.m. on the day of the burn, with limited access outside. Whitelaw said the raptors and other animals that are accustomed to fire will remain outside, but any shows that require the animals to exert themselves will be canceled.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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