July 8, 2008

National Fire Plan Emphasizes Fuels Reduction in Wildland-Urban Interface

By Ethan Schowalter-Hay, The Observer, La Grande, Ore.

Jul. 8--As wildfire season returns to the forests and shrublands of Northeast Oregon, it's worth considering some of the preventative measures taken year-round by resource managers and residents.

The Oregon Department of Forestry, for example, participates in a kind of landowner outreach as part of the National Fire Plan, a federal program instituted in 2000 after several years of widespread, mammoth wildfires.

"The cost of suppressing the fires escalated, and what they found was that a lot of the expense was in trying to keep fires from going into neighborhoods and communities and destroying homes," said Angie Johnson, National Fire Plan coordinator for ODF's Northeast Oregon District.

Much of the fire plan's focus, thus, concentrates on America's wildland-urban interface, that tense, ever-increasing gradient between residential property and less developed country. And much of that work involves the reduction of woody fuels, which in high density can dramatically power large wildfires.

A number of property owners in the local area have participated in such preventative measures. ODF helps coordinate applications for community-assistance grants, one avenue of funding through the National Fire Plan, that can reduce the overall expense for the landowner.

(There are other grants available within the fire plan, including those specifically geared toward rural and volunteer fire departments.)

To qualify for funding, projects must lie within a designated wildland-urban interface, identified in the community wildfire protection plans, or CWPPs, of Union and Wallowa counties. Johnson said the committees overseeing the CWPPs review ODF's applications for community-assistance grants.

Many of the fuel reduction projects ODF collaborates on border ongoing National Fire Plan initiatives of the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies.

"The projects are both state and federal," said Jamie Knight, National Fire Plan forester for the La Grande Unit of ODF's Northeast Oregon District. "This helps us to coordinate with our federal partners to get the biggest bang for the buck and create landscape-level fuels reduction treatments across the ownership lines."

Currently, the La Grande Unit has active projects at Cove, Mount Emily, Morgan Lake and Palmer Junction.

Both Johnson and Knight emphasized that landowners who don't fall within a wildland-urban interface can still contact ODF for technical advice on wildfire prevention.

Fuels -- any flammable material, from trees to buildings -- is one of three main components of the "fire environment," along with weather and topography, and the only one easily manipulated by humankind. Steep slopes and high, dry winds can bolster a wildfire, but it's factors like the density of saplings and the configuration of subdivisions that can be controlled by homeowners, foresters and planners.

People can create "defensible space" about their property without razing vegetation.

"The key thing is, we don't want clearcuts," Knight said. Rather, the management aims to reduce the concentration of shrubs, snags and other combustible material.

This type of thinning may have a broader influence, beyond buffering against big wildfires.

"Of course, by doing that, especially in an overstocked stand, there will be some benefits ecologically," Johnson said.

A more open forest composition allows greater sunlight through the canopy and frees up nutrients and water. Furthermore, Knight said that fuel reduction activities often concentrate on diseased or dying timber, removing them from the ecological community -- like wildfire might.

Much of the grunt work is accomplished by local machinists contracting with individual landowners. Earlier this year, Gary R. Wright Contracting, owned by Gary and Nancy Wright of Union, was honored by ODF as the 2007 Eastern Oregon Regional Operator of the Year.

Wright Contracting helped establish a 2.5-mile fuel break between private and Forest Service land on the lower face of Mount Emily, one visible to the discerning eye from the Grande Ronde Valley.

"It is kind of a big deal when you consider it's across around 10 different landowners," Knight said.

One of the tools in Gary Wright's arsenal is a handy mulching machine called the "Slashbuster," which essentially obliterates built-up timber without leaving the slash piles that can encourage insect infestation.

"It's just another garden," Wright said of the forests he helps manage.

The Slashbuster operators don't plow through timber willy-nilly; they're considering a variety of factors as they seek out which trees to remove and which to retain.

And the saurian rig is versatile: Wright pointed out that it's often employed on active firelines, as well as for post-burn rehabilitation.

Landowners must be receptive for this type of management to be effective.

"When you're dealing with private landowners, you can't railroad them," Knight said. "You can't force them to do it."

Johnson, Knight and Wright all agree that, as far as persuasion goes, the thinning efforts usually speak for themselves. Once one or two residents work on their property, their neighbors often become interested.

"It's a perfect deal," Wright said. "It's a win-win situation for the landowners."

For more information about the National Fire Plan and how to participate, or for general advice on fuels reduction, contact ODF's Northeast Oregon District at 963-3168.

For background on community wildfire protection plans in Union and Wallowa counties, visit http://egov.oregon.gov/ODF/FIRE/FirePlans.shtml , or call Angie Johnson with ODF at 963-3168.


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