July 14, 2008

Wildfire Near Mount Adams Unfurls Eruptionlike Smoke Plume

By Erik Robinson, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Jul. 14--A lighting-sparked wildfire, smoldering for a week, exploded Sunday in a blaze that prompted some Southwest Washington residents to mistake the cauliflower-like smoke plume for an eruption of Mount Adams.

By late Sunday afternoon, the fire covered more than 500 acres of dead and dying timber.

"It's going to be burning into the week," said Paul Ries, a public information officer for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. "It's definitely both wind-driven and fuel-driven because it's burning in those dead trees. They have a lot of energy that can fuel that fire."

Two helicopters and an aerial tanker joined wildland firefighters on Sunday fighting the fire about six miles south of Mount Adams' 12,276-foot peak.

Emergency workers on Sunday were coordinating the exit of roughly 100 climbers leaving the area along Forest Road 8040, near where the fire was burning 11 miles northeast of Trout Lake.

The Forest Service closed access to the popular Cold Springs/ South Climb Trailhead to Washington's second-tallest peak. By late Sunday afternoon, the agency had closed forest roads 23, 80 and 82 at the boundary of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, eliminating all public access to national forest lands north of Trout Lake.

No properties or people were believed to be immediately threatened by the fire, though fire managers weren't taking any chances. An incident command team from central Oregon was due to arrive in the area today to bolster local fire crews.

Smoke from the fire was visible 60 miles away in Vancouver, where several people mistook the smoke plume for a volcanic eruption. Fanned by a steady breeze of 10 mph, the fire jumped from 30 acres to more than 500 acres Sunday afternoon. Temperatures climbed above 90 degrees.

For years, foresters have worried about the potential of a major conflagration in the area.

"It's always a concern in that area because there is some bug-killed timber, and it's the drier side of the forest," said Chris Strebig, spokesman for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. "That's why we're definitely jumping on it."

The fire is occurring in a 20,000-acre area afflicted by an infestation of spruce budworm.

After logging the native forest of predominantly Ponderosa pine in the 1940s, the Forest Service successfully snuffed out wildfire in the decades since -- allowing it to grow unnaturally thick with an understory of Douglas fir and grand fir. The understory proved to be prime conditions for the budworm, which feasts on the trees' needles and thrives in the drier climate east of the Cascades.

In a 2003 story in The Columbian, one forester equated the splotch of gray forest to a ticking time bomb.

Since then, the Forest Service has thinned some of the understory and removed some of the dead material. Land managers on the adjacent Yakama Indian Reservation have also thinned bug-infested forests to the east.

The fire should die down when it gets there, a Forest Service spokesman said Sunday.

"If it does hit some of those fuel-treatment areas, it's going to significantly reduce what's available to burn," said Roger Peterson, a Gifford Pinchot spokesman in Vancouver. "(Fuel reduction) has worked elsewhere really well."

Strebig said forest officials were preparing to call in more resources on a hot Sunday afternoon as the fire grew.

Fire managers suspect a lightning storm earlier this month sparked the blaze, along with a 2-acre fire in the Cedar Flats area along Forest Road 25 north of Swift Reservoir. The fire near Mount Adams was reported about 8 p.m. Saturday.

"They're holdover lightning fires from about a week ago," Strebig said.


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Copyright (c) 2008, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

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