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This photo taken from an airplane shows the Granite Gulch fire in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The Minam River Canyon is in the upper right of the photo.

BAKER CITY — Nathan Goodrich has no problem letting the combination of a lightning bolt and summer heat do part of his work.

This particular task involves reintroducing wildfire, and its multiple potential benefits, to Oregon’s biggest wilderness area.

Which is no small matter, and not only because the Eagle Cap Wilderness sprawls across 365,000 acres.

The wilderness is part of Goodrich’s responsibility as fire management officer for the northern part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

For the past quarter century or so the Wallowa-Whitman has had a policy under which lightning fires, under certain conditions, can burn naturally.

During that period more than a dozen fires have burned in the Eagle Cap without being subject to the Forest Service’s standard firefighting tactics. Some of these blazes have spread over a few hundred acres or more.

The latest of these fires was sparked by lightning on July 14.

But Goodrich and other Forest Service officials didn’t know the blaze was smoldering in Granite Gulch, near the center of the wilderness north of the Minam River, until Sunday.

That’s when a hiker reported smoke in Granite Gulch.

Since then Goodrich has monitored the fire by way of airplane flights and by having fire experts visit the site to gauge fuel moisture levels and collect other data that will be fed into a computer model predicting the fire’s behavior through the rest of the summer and into autumn.

The fire has burned about 20 acres, which makes it relatively small by the standards of these “leave” fires in the Eagle Cap.

Goodrich said the lightning bolt that ignited the fire — the July 14 date is based on an analysis of lightning-detection maps — struck in an area that’s nearly ideal for a fire that the Forest Service will monitor rather than fight.

For one thing, Granite Gulch is more than 6 miles from the nearest boundary between the wilderness and the “regular” national forest.

Goodrich said the farther from the boundary the better, because that reduces the chances that a fire could approach the boundary and potentially prompt forest officials to try to slow, and possibly extinguish, the flames.

For another, Granite Gulch is an area where fire can benefit the forest, by reducing the amount of fuel on the ground and thus curbing the severity of future fires in the area. Flames can also help rejuvenate whitebark pine trees, which can suffer if fire is long excluded.

Researchers have found that the absence of fire can allow subalpine fir trees to encroach on whitebark pine groves.

Fire can also create openings ideal for Clark’s nutcrackers, a bird that feeds on whitebark seeds, to cache the seeds — a vital way that the trees spread.

“We’re letting the fire do what it’s supposed to be doing,” Goodrich said.

Indeed, the Forest Service has tried over the past couple decades to replicate nature by lighting fires intentionally in parts of the Eagle Cap along the Minam River.

Goodrich said he’s optimistic that the Granite Gulch fire will be the latest blaze to help advance the Forest Service’s goals in the wilderness.

During his tenure here, which started in 2007, several lightning fires have burned in the Minam River drainage, and most accomplished at least some of the agency’s goals, Goodrich said.

Combined, those fires, which include Pot Creek, High Hat Butte, China Cap, Katy Mountain and Minam Peak, burned more than 1,000 acres.

“We’ve had one almost every year that I’ve been here, since 2007,” Goodrich said.

He concedes the inherent risk in allowing fires to burn — even in a wilderness that covers 570 square miles, bigger than either Hood River County or Multnomah County.

In 2009, for instance, the Big Sheep fire southwest of Lostine was fanned by strong winds and burned outside the wilderness onto private land.

“That’s what people are fearful of,” Goodrich said.

He noted, though, that the Big Sheep fire is an outlier — and its blowup was especially unusual in that it happened in the last week of September, at the very end of the usual fire season.

Regardless, Goodrich said he and other fire managers will continue to monitor the Granite Gulch fire, just as they do with all blazes in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

If the fire threatens to grow faster than expected and poses a significant risk of crossing the wilderness boundary, fire bosses can call in resources, such as helicopters, to cool the advancing flames, Goodrich said.

They did that with the Pot Creek fire in late August 2011, to prevent flames from spreading into the Minam River Canyon.

“If it’s not doing what we want it to do, we can take action,” Goodrich said.

He said it’s quite plausible that the Granite Gulch fire will grow if the recent hot, dry weather persists.

In fact he hopes that happens.

Just as the Forest Service doesn’t light prescribed fires on just a handful of acres, he would prefer that a natural fire will burn over enough land to actually improve the landscape.

“When the Granite Gulch fire is active, smoke may be visible from the Baker and Grande Ronde valleys,” Goodrich said. “We will be watching this one closely.”

Although Goodrich prefers to let lightning fires burn in the Eagle Cap, in some cases officials have decided to fight fires from the outset.

In 2015, for instance, officials summoned crews to extinguish a lightning fire in the Minam River area. That decision was due in part to the fire starting early in the season — around July 1 — which meant that left alone it could have spread during the hottest, driest part of the year.

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