Prescribed fires planned for Central Oregon

Deschutes, Willamette national forests working on plans for controlled burns

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Fire managers at the Willamette and Deschutes national forests still intend to ignite prescribed fires in designated wilderness areas, but they won’t be doing it as a joint effort as they planned.

Prescribed fires in wilderness, such as in the Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas, would represent a departure from normal U.S. Forest Service practices of leaving these areas untouched.

Other projects in the Deschutes forest have taken precedence the past year, in particular reviewing a permit renewal for a new city of Bend drinking water pipeline and finalizing plans for forest thinning just west of town, said Rod Bonacker, special projects coordinator for the Deschutes National Forest.

“We have just so much planning energy and those were high priority,” he said.

The Willamette has had delays itself brought by worker turnover and by the planning for prescribed wilderness fires taking longer than expected, said Matt Peterson, recreation program manager for the Willamette National Forest. In March 2013 Willamette officials said the burns could be in fall 2013. Now they are targeting this fall.

Prescribed fire is the intentional ignition of fire in a forest when weather conditions are right for a low-intensity fire that creeps through the undergrowth. The goal is to change the complexion of the forest and slow the spread and intensity of wildfire. They are also known as controlled burns and are a regular occurrence in Central Oregon during spring and fall.

The Deschutes should be sending out a scoping letter for its prescribed wilderness fires near the end of May, doing analysis over the summer and putting out draft environmental documents in the fall, Bonacker said. The burning itself likely wouldn’t be until next year.

Under the plans, helicopters would buzz the woods, dropping pingpong ball-like spheres that burst into flames. Or, the copters would swing a large aerial drip torch, similar to the small drip torches carried by firefighters to start fire on the ground.

The two forests have been working on plans to light prescribed fires in wilderness areas on both sides of the Cascades since about 2011. The Willamette plans to start with woods in and just outside the Mount Washington Wilderness Area, southwest of Sisters, and the Deschutes plans to start in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, along the Cascade Lakes Highway west of Bend.

The Willamette project would encompass 6,486 acres — 5,714 within the wilderness area and 772 outside of it — Peterson said. The number of acres to be burned on the Deschutes is still being determined, Bonacker said, and the map of where the fires would be is still being drawn.

Peterson said the prescribed fire in the Mount Washington Wilderness would occur in fall shortly before rain or snowfall, a fire “season ending event.” He emphasized there would be no bulldozers crawling through or firefighters digging fire lines in the wilderness as part of the prescribed burns.

The Forest Service has faced criticism from some conservation groups for prescribed fires in wilderness areas, which have been lit in other parts of the country, particularly from Montana-based Wilderness Watch. The group contends the fires would go against the spirit of the Wilderness Act of 1964 by manipulating the wilderness ecosystem.

But the fires also have their supporters.

George Wuerthner, the Bend author of the 2006 book “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy,” said he thinks it is great to get more fire on the land, particularly prescribed fires. He supports the plans by the Willamette and the Deschutes to light prescribed fires in wilderness areas.

“As long as it is done without a lot of disturbance on the ground,” he said.

The plans also have the backing of Rich Fairbanks, a wildfire expert in Southern Oregon who served as a fire planner on the Willamette National Forest from 1989 to 2003.

“We really do need to put fire back into these forests,” he said.

After reviewing the initial plans by the Willamette National Forest, he said his only concern is how much helicopters would be used in lighting the fires. He said fire starting could be done in some places by people on the ground and doing so would provide late-season work for firefighters.

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