For decades, the U.S. Forest Service has talked about the need to allow wildfires to burn more naturally to improve forest health across the West.
But in an age of megafires that threaten cities and pollute the air with unhealthy smoke, it has been difficult for the agency to actually allow wildfires to burn.
That’s especially true in Western Oregon, where the forests are filled with economically important timber and the wilderness areas are filled with hikers fueling an outdoor recreation economy.
But in northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, they’ve found it easier to live with active wildfires.
This summer fire managers are allowing the 3,400-acre Granite Gulch Fire to burn deep in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in an effort to improve forest health, a practice officials say they attempt at least once each summer.
“The best way to describe it is a ‘managed fire,’ because while we’re not putting it out, we do check it with water drops to make sure it’s staying where we want it,” said Nathan Goodrich, zone fire management officer for Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. “By doing it that way, it really has been a great fire throughout its lifespan.”
They’ve also allowed, and even helped, the smaller Hallow Log Fire wildfire burn outside the wilderness.
Allowing a wildfire to burn is fraught with peril. They sometimes escape, bringing danger to local communities. They also halt outdoor recreation and produce unhealthy smoke that can torpedo tourism — an issue southwest Oregon has struggled with mightily.
But done right, Goodrich said, an active wildfire offers the ideal way to save money, restore forest health and reduce the threat of more catastrophic blazes in the future.
And, he said, it’s something Western Oregon managers could try more often.
The Granite Gulch Fire was likely sparked by a lightning strike around July 14, but it wasn’t discovered until July 28 in the remote Granite Gulch of the Upper Minam River.
A few elements made it a good candidate to become a helpful fire.
First, it has been a wetter-than-normal year in northeast Oregon. Second, it was located far from civilization — 15 miles from the nearest structures and five miles from the nearest wilderness boundary. It was also late enough in the season, by mid-August, to know cool nights and rain would come soon.
“This area hasn’t seen fire in a long time, and it’s ready for it,” Goodrich said. “Under natural circumstances it would have burned, but we’ve been putting out fires for 120 years and it has led to unnatural conditions.”
Fire managers made a plan for where they wanted to fire to burn and not burn, and looked at all the risks, Goodrich said. They got approval.
For the most part, the fire has grown slowly, backing its way down hills and slopes, with the occasional burst of growth and spotting.
“We all shared in the risk — something can always go wrong,” Goodrich said. “But we decided it was a good decision based on all the factors, and so far it has worked out.”
What makes for a ‘great wildfire?’
Before the fire, there were a number of problems with the forest in the Upper Minam River.
It was overstocked with trees, with a canopy so thick limited sunlight gets through, providing little forage for wildlife. The ground was littered with logs and branches.
Subalpine firs have crowded the forest, leaving little room for whitebark pine that used to thrive in the area.
“It’s an area that could have been really prone to a large wildfire because it hasn’t burned the way it should have,” Goodrich said. “That’s created an unnatural situation.”
The Granite Gulch Fire provided a chance to change that. The fire has been burning slowly through the forest, eating up excess fuel and killing off the small subalpine firs, which Goodrich said would spur new growth for whitebark pines.
“The benefit is less fuel, less danger of a future fire,” Goodrich said. “It’s safer for firefighters and the forest is in better shape.”
A cheaper way to forest health
Last year was the most expensive wildfire season in Oregon history, costing more than $514 million.
The Miles Complex, in southern Oregon, cost a whopping $95 million for a 54,000-acre collection of fires. The major wildfires are often are staffed by an army of 1,500 to 2,000 people.
But prescribed burns — artificially ignited fires designed to clean out brush and reduce threat — are also pricy. A plan to treat southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley forest has a price tag estimated at $30 million per year.
In contrast, Goodrich said he expected the Granite Gulch Fire to cost less than $150,000. It’s currently being staffed by 12 people.
“In a wilderness area, where you can’t do thinning or build roads or anything like that, wildfire is the only way to effect change,” Goodrich said. “This fire is a very cheap treatment.”
Helping Hollow Log Fire grow outside wilderness
The Eagle Cap Wilderness isn’t the only place officials are keeping fire going.
The lightning-started Hollow Log Fire is burning on national forest land, and in past years might have been snuffed out.
Instead, forest officials actually helped the fire grow by igniting vegetation as in a prescribed fire, with the goal of helping the blaze burn exactly 92 acres.
The danger of allowing fires to burn
In the summer of 2017, in southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the Chetco Bar Fire started as a small blaze in a remote location.
Firefighters made an initial attempt to put the fire out, but after it escaped, fire teams backed off, putting a “box around the fire” and waiting for the blaze to burn itself out, officials said.
But the fire didn’t go quietly.
Instead, the fire exploded into an inferno of that nearly burned down the city of Brookings on the southwest Oregon Coast. Anger over how the Chetco Bar Fire was fought remains two years later.
Goodrich said he understands the danger in letting a fire burn. He said that in 2009, he managed a fire that burned out of the wilderness.
“When it comes to wildfires, everybody is going to get a black eye occasionally,” he said. “Chetco Bar Fires will happen. And people do get mad at us. But overall, I’d say our population is generally understanding, and we’ve had a lot more success than failure.”
In addition to danger, allowing a fire to burn can mean other sacrifices. The Granite Gulch Fire has produced some smoke in the Wallowa Valley, an area that relies heavily on tourism. And on Friday, officials closed a number of trails in the Eagle Cap — one of Oregon’s most popular backpacking destinations.
Allowing fire to burn is a tool
Goodrich said the Granite Gulch Fire isn’t a one-time occurrence. He said once a year on average, he’s used a wildfire for forest management by allowing it to burn. It would happen more often as well.
He said this type of policy is possible in Western Oregon’s wilderness, but it is more difficult given the larger population and importance of timber.
“It’s a lot tougher because you have millions of people, and a long history of protecting the timber that’s so important to the economy,” he said. “It’s a real struggle to convince people that not all fire is bad. But if you can do it, it can bring a lot of benefits.”
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 11 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal.
He is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.