July 15, 2008

Wildfire Covers 8,000 Acres

By Erik Robinson, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Jul. 15--A forest fire south of Mount Adams ballooned to more than 8,000 acres Monday. An expert said several circumstances give this fire an unusual opportunity to continue to grow.

Regional fire managers dispatched hundreds of wildland firefighters to the area 11 miles northeast of Trout Lake on Monday. A small tent village of firefighters sprouted on the grounds of the Trout Lake School, while state highway authorities warned motorists against parking along state Highway 141 to gawk at the towering plume of smoke.

Although the lightning-sparked blaze grew from 500 acres Sunday afternoon to more than 12 square miles by Monday afternoon, authorities don't believe it presents an imminent danger to structures or people.

However, one of the Northwest's leading fire ecologists said there may be little firefighters can do to control the blaze.

"I wish them the best, but I think this fire is going to get larger," said Jim Agee, a retired University of Washington professor who has studied the area extensively.

Years of stocking the tinderbox The Cold Springs fire is on the north edge of a 20,000-acre stand of timber infested with spruce budworm, a low-elevation forest that the U.S. Forest Service has tried to maintain as habitat for the northern spotted owl. Decades of successful fire suppression have allowed an unnaturally thick understory of grand fir to encroach into a native forest of ponderosa pine.

This multilayered canopy is typical of old growth forests in Western Washington and is considered prime habitat for the owl.

Yet in the drier climate near Mount Adams, the management practices also proved to be a boon for the budworm. The insects feast on the trees' needles. Since foresters began to take notice of the infestations in the 1990s, the budworm has gradually weakened the understory of grand fir.

Year by year, the forest has become more susceptible to wildfire.

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 thinned bug-infested forests to the east.

Agee, author of "Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests," said he's not sure they've thinned nearly enough dead material. He's predicted a major conflagration for years.

"It makes me sad to see that happen," he said. "As a specialist in the field, I made some projections I thought were well-founded. Unfortunately, they've come true."

Fortunately, the wind was pushing the fire mostly toward uninhabited areas to the northeast.

Elizabeth Willhite, a Forest Service entomologist who has studied the budworm infestation in the Mount Adams Ranger District, said the fire appeared to be burning mainly in higher-elevation lodgepole pine and subalpine fir, where insect infestations are a normal part of the ecosystem.

If the fire turns south, however, it's likely to gain intensity as it feeds on the budworm-infested grand fir.

On Monday, the fire spilled out of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest onto the Yakama Indian Reservation. It is also threatening state-owned forest land.

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest reported almost 400 people were working the fire, including three elite 20-member "hot shot" crews. Air tankers, one heavy helicopter and one medium-sized helicopter attacked the fire from the air, while crews used 11 engines and five dozers to fight the fire on the ground.

Firefighters suspect the fire had smoldered since a June 29 lightning storm sparked it.

The Forest Service closed access to the popular Cold Springs-South Climb Trailhead, used by hikers visiting 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, eliminating all public access to national forest lands north of Trout Lake.

Mount Adams District Ranger Nancy Ryke said Monday morning that 217 people were registered to climb Mount Adams over the weekend, and most were escorted out Sunday afternoon.

"We're just watching out and making sure people are off the mountain," she said.


To see more of The Columbian, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbian.com.

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

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.