LEWISTON, Idaho — Last week, on what Steve Carlson called a horrible day for fire danger, firefighters were able to use a drip torch to light a blaze along the 42 Road on the Umatilla National Forest.
It was hot, historically dry and the Lick Creek Fire was burning out of control lower in the Charley Creek drainage. But fire and vegetation managers on the Pomeroy Ranger District of the forest had anticipated this day decades earlier.
In the early 2000s, they designed a vegetation management project that removed fire-intolerant species like grand fir and left ponderosa pine and larch. They followed the logging with prescribed burning and periodic thinning to create an open stand dominated by mature trees, light underbrush and some younger trees growing below the big pines.
So, nearly two decades later as the Lick Creek Fire burned actively and firefighters were scrambling to hem it in, this spot and others like it gave them a toehold, one they would expand with fire of their own. They lit the old Charley Timber Sale unit on fire. It burned readily, but the flames stayed close to the ground.
“If you revert it to pine-tree-with-grass stands, we can do this on one of the worst days of the worst year on record and have a scorch height of somewhere around your belt buckle,” said Carlson, a retired assistant fire management officer from the Pomeroy District, who is working on the fire.
That means the introduced fire didn’t burn out of control and didn’t climb into the crowns of the big pines. Their thick bark was able to withstand the fire, but the flames consumed smaller trees and underbrush. The burning operation created a blackened fire break along the road — one that gave firefighters room to work.
But the Charley Timber Sale, with its prescribed burns and thinning, wasn’t a standalone project. There was the Sweeny Timber Sale, the Spruce Salvage Sale and the more recent Sunrise and South George projects that included a series of sales and burns. Together they created a string of fuel breaks along the 42, 40 and 43 roads that firefighters with the Pacific Northwest Management Team 3 are taking advantage of as they work to control the fire.
On Friday, July 16, they expected to have a line around it and complete burning operations designed to widen it. When the main fire further down in the canyons reaches those lines, firefighters said they believe they will have a good chance of holding.
“The footprint of this fire is just shy of 70,000 acres, but we are talking about tying it in today. That is one week. That is unheard of,” said Jason McGovern, a fire behavior analyst with the team. “If the firefighters and responders didn’t have these treated areas to utilize, we wouldn’t be talking about tying it in in one week.”
Tara Mackleit, fire management officer for the Pomeroy Ranger District, said the treatments over the past 20 years prepped the area to deal with fire.
“It makes for a resilient landscape so it can accept fire,” Mackleit said.
Too often, she said, people think of fire in negative terms and don’t consider the positive ecological benefits it can bring. She thinks people will be surprised when they have a chance to see it after the Lick Creek Fire is contained and the Umatilla Forest reopens to visitors.
“You see the smoke, and you have the worst in your mind,” she said. “But I think they will be very pleased when they come up here and there are still places to camp and hunt and do the activities they love to do up here. If the system is set up right for resilience, then you get good products like this.”
Umatilla Forest Supervisor Eric Watrud said the fuel management projects make the forest more resilient to fire and help keep firefighters safe.
“That is kind of the overarching goal, that landscape resilience and setting up the landscape so when disturbances do occur not only does it give options to fire managers, but it reduces the risk of catastrophic fire,” Watrud said.
He also noted those efforts can play a role in sustaining the economies of rural communities. For example, he noted the 35,000 acres treated in a handful of projects that are now helping firefighters produced about 78 million board feet of timber over the years and contributed to local economics.
“These types of activities have been going on for decades, regularly,” he said. “They are in the past, are going on in the present and planned in the future.”