Largest of Oregon's summer wildfires left a forest that could prove healthier in long run; much of 17,000-acre Whiskey complex burned close to ground taking out debris, less than 20% of acreage incurring severe to moderate damage, says ranger

PORTLAND, Oregon , November 28, 2013 () – The Whiskey complex of fires burned through more than 17,000 acres of the Umpqua National Forest this past summer, but even before the last smoldering snag was out, the stewards of the land were planning what to do next.

The fires, like the big Douglas complex south of Grants Pass, were sparked by lightning on July 26, joining a list that made this the worst year for wildfires on state and federal land in Oregon in more than a decade. The Whiskey complex alone required 932 firefighters and $23 million to contain. Now, to move forward, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to balance the wants of environmentalists, loggers and recreationists with their own sometimes Byzantine forest rules and regulations. That means salvaging and selling timber that survived, leaving legacy trees behind, restoring streams, even harvesting and selling the woody debris left over, including some wood that could be turned into charcoal.

The Whiskey complex was named after the biggest wildfire, at 16,185 acres, among three in southern Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest. Like most wildfires it left behind a mosaic burn pattern: In some places it crept through the understory, beneficially burning accumulated forest debris and downed trees; in others, it raged into the forest’s upper story, destroying even the largest of Douglas firs, western hemlocks, ponderosa pines and incense cedars.

But thanks to an unusual marine layer of damp clouds that moved into the 100,000-acre forest on the western slopes of the Cascades in mid-August, much of the fire stayed close to the ground.

“The fire wasn’t totally killing the trees,” said Donna Owens, the Tiller Ranger District’s head ranger. “The fire stayed mostly on the ground, which is a natural way of cleaning up forest debris and litter.” Less than 20 percent of the acreage burned suffered severe to moderate damage.

Last week more than 50 people — retired and active loggers, environmentalists, water resource managers, community members and Forest Service scientists — joined Owens on a tour of the fire’s path.

After a briefing at the ranger station along the South Umpqua River about 30 miles east of Canyonville and Interstate 5, the group piled into SUVs and station wagons, traveling through a locked gate into an area closed to the public. It’s dangerous terrain because unstable fire-damaged trees along miles of forest roads could fall and rocks on hillsides denuded of vegetation could come tumbling down.

The tour was part of the Whiskey fire salvage and recovery project, a plan that focuses on six main goals: salvaging timber along roads to sell; salvaging timber inside the forest to sell and retaining large, or “legacy,” trees and snags; replanting trees for future timber sales and for future forest health; removing brush along roads to better manage future fires and to improve the watershed; doing prescribed burns to reduce future fires; and continuing to monitor the forest to prevent noxious weed infestation.

Ranger districts all have a basic federal outline to follow on recovery efforts, but each district maps out its own specific approach.

“We’re listening; that’s the biggest thing we’ve been doing over the past month or so,” Owens said. “Listening to our various user groups, taking them on field trips.”

Though the plan hinges on public input, it’s not without problems and controversy: “We’re not going to satisfy everyone,” she said.

In a dense fog clinging to the craggy hills inside the Whiskey fire’s boundaries it was easy to see how the flames had crept along the ground, scorching but not burning or killing trees.

As the tour traveled higher on the Forest Service 3114 Road, the patchwork of low-lying burned areas gave way to ghostly, black sticks: trees burned from the ground to their crowns by intense heat.

Along the way the group passed large logs, mostly ponderosa pines lying parallel along the road. The giants were felled by sawyers during firefighting efforts or shortly after; each was marked and numbered with blue paint, meaning it could be removed and turned into salable lumber.

“This is an action that most folks agreed upon that needed to be done,” Tiller district biologist Casey Baldwin told the group.

The forest road is heavily used for most of the year, by hikers and later in the year by hunters, Baldwin said. He pointed out large trees that would probably be cut down as a safety precaution, including a few that were already leaning over the road: “At some point these are all going to come down. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

The tour was the third for Stanley Petrowski, president and director of the South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership.

Since 2006, he said, the nonprofit community group has worked on stream and oak meadow restoration projects in the Tiller district with a broad base of input, including timber industry interests, conservationists and citizens.

The Whiskey fire may have briefly interrupted those projects, but it also opens the door for groups like Petrowksi’s to bring about changes that advocates from different perspectives can agree on: protecting old growth and newer stands of trees jeopardized by forest debris that wasn’t allowed to burn because of earlier fire suppression policies.

“All those stands have extremely high fuel loads which threaten all that the stakeholders hold dear, whether it’s spotted owls or timber,” he said.

That fuel — downed branches, tree trunks, brush, leaves — can be removed from watersheds during the restoration, Petrowski said. Some of the so-called biomass can be converted into high-quality charcoal, or bio-char, that in turn can be used as a soil amendment or even as charcoal for industry.

Normally, biomass winds up in slash piles (“I’ve seen them 40-feet high,” he said) that are usually just burned.

After an environmental assessment, Owens said she and her staff will review the options for the forest in the coming months. That will include more public input and maybe more field trips before the snow starts to fly in the higher elevations of the blackened mountaintops.
(c) 2013 Oregonian Publishing Co.

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