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Cooperative Wind Gives Hundreds of Firefighters a Little Help

July 16, 2008

By Erik Robinson, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Jul. 16–Hundreds of firefighters on Tuesday made some headway against a forest fire that still expanded by another 2,000 acres south of Mount Adams.

The Cold Springs fire, which has spread to more than 15 square miles since flaring up Saturday evening, still posed no immediate threat to people or property. A southerly wind on Tuesday enabled hundreds of firefighters to attack the fire directly on its southern flank, hoping to prevent a worst-case scenario in which the fire balloons dramatically.

Lying just to the south is a huge tract of dead and dying timber on the way toward populated areas near Trout Lake.

A spokesman for the incident command team, which has taken over the Trout Lake School, said that firefighters are well aware of the hazard to the south. They are trying to create a brush-free firebreak along the fire’s south, southwest and southeast flanks.

For the worst to happen, “The wind would have to make a major shift and blow in a direction that it doesn’t normally,” said Kim Smolt, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Trout Lake.

Even so, firefighters are taking no chances.

Using hand tools in the steep and rugged terrain, firefighters are scraping a fire line down to bare dirt. Seven bulldozers are clearing a firebreak in areas accessible to heavy equipment.

Ironically, decades of successful fire suppression has raised the hazard because an unnaturally thick understory of grand fir has encroached into a native forest of ponderosa pine.

In addition, over the past several years an infestation of spruce budworms has weakened or killed thousands of trees in 20,000 acres of lower-elevation forest. The fire, which already sent up an eruption-like plume visible from Yakima to Vancouver, would gain intensity if it turned south and began feeding on the budworm-infested forest of fire-prone grand fir.

Local environmental and timber industry groups have agreed to the need for reducing the fire hazard by logging dead and dying trees in the understory. However, the Forest Service has so far treated less than 1,000 acres of the so-called Gotchen planning area, leaving the rest vulnerable.

“I’m madder than hell,” said Bob Dick, Washington manager of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. “It does not feel good to say, ‘I told you so.’ We’ll spend millions of dollars and it’ll burn up a lot of timber.

“And it didn’t have to happen.”

Emily Platt, executive director of the environmental group Gifford Pinchot Task Force, said it’s too early to say make sweeping conclusions. The fire was burning in higher-elevation lodgepole pine and subalpine fir, where occasional large-scale fires are a natural part of the forest’s ecology.

“Fire has been excluded from the area for quite a while,” she said. “It will be really interesting to see how much of it is 100 percent burned. It might be really good for the area.”

Noting that fire managers trace the fire’s origin to a June 29 lightning storm, Dick said the Forest Service should have been more vigilant about scanning the area. He suggested using infrared technology mounted aboard aircraft, especially around forests as sensitive as the fire-prone Gotchen area.

“There needs to be some fairly serious questions asked about why that fire was allowed to smolder,” Dick said. “You have an adjacent resource that’s a tinderbox.”

Chris Strebig, a spokesman for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said the forest does contract with pilots looking for possible fires. In fact, he said, one such pilot flew directly over the remote area about 3:30 p.m. on Friday before landing in Trout Lake.

“The aerial observer was driving back from Trout Lake to Hood River about 7:45 and could see smoke while driving in the car,” Strebig said.

He said the Mount Adams Ranger District dispatched a small crew to hike in Saturday night. By Sunday morning, however, the fire had grown to 30 acres. In hot breezy conditions, the fire continued to spread quickly to 500 acres.

As of Tuesday evening, it was burning across more than 10,000 acres.

Wildfire safety tips

Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway says the Cold Springs fire near Mount Adams should be a teachable moment for property owners living in harm’s way. He emphasized the need to create a “defensible space” of 30 feet around homes.

REMOVAL: Remove tall, dry grasses and leaves, and clear leaves, needles and other debris from your roof and gutters. Relocate firewood and other combustible debris at least 30 feet uphill from your house.

REDUCTION: Remove dead or overhanging branches near your house, and prune all bushes and shrubs to remove excess growth, dead leaves and branches. Cut dried grasses and wildflowers.

REPLACEMENT: Substitute less-flammable plants for hazardous vegetation. For example, an irrigated and well-maintained flower bed contains far less potential fuel than a landscape of heavy bushes and trees.

Erik Robinson can be reached at 360-735-4551 or erik.robinson@columbian.com.

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

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