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home : current news : current news October 21, 2017

10/10/2017 12:55:00 PM
Surveying fire damage along Hwy. 242
Many trees along Highway 242 had to be cut down due to safety concerns. photo by Gary Miller
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Many trees along Highway 242 had to be cut down due to safety concerns. photo by Gary Miller

Hwy. 242 on the McKenzie Pass suffered significant fire damage to both the road and the scenic corridor during the Milli Fire, resulting in extensive hazard-tree removal and repairs by the USFS and ODOT. photo by Gary Miller
+ click to enlarge
Hwy. 242 on the McKenzie Pass suffered significant fire damage to both the road and the scenic corridor during the Milli Fire, resulting in extensive hazard-tree removal and repairs by the USFS and ODOT. photo by Gary Miller

By Sue Stafford

Stepping out of the Forest Service vehicle onto Highway 242, and standing surrounded by blackened ponderosa and lodge-pole pines and once-green Douglas fir trees, the lack of a burned smell was surprising. The air, once filled with acrid, dense smoke, was clear and clean and the sky was blue.

The surroundings were silent, except for the sound of a chainsaw whining through the thick trunk of a tree identified as a hazard, and the resultant thud as the tree fell to the ground on the steep slope above the highway. No birds chirping, no squirrels chattering, no bicyclists or hikers enjoying the scenic byway that is the old McKenzie Pass highway over the Cascade Range to the Willamette Valley.

The Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Transportation led a media tour of the still-closed Highway 242 last week.

James Osborne, fire management officer for the Cascade Division, gave assurances that the wildlife left the area the minute they sensed the fire starting and have now begun to return. The birds and squirrels have started to gather the seeds from the lodgepole pinecones that open when exposed to the fire's heat. Deer and elk have been spotted in the burn scars, returning to roll in the ash left by the fire, to rid themselves of bothersome ticks. Coyote and fox are returning to their home territory for the coming winter.

The natural fire cycle that clears out dead and diseased trees and removes thick underbrush has been occurring for thousands of years. When humans choose to live in the wildland- urban interface, then human intercedents like prescribed burns become necessary to save lives and property when forest fires start.

The challenging job for the U. S. Forest Service is to maintain the balance between nature doing what it does, and human interaction with nature as people live and recreate close to and in the national forest. The very thing that makes Sisters such a special place to live is also capable of creating public safety hazards and economic hardship when forest fires strike.

"The money set aside for fire suppression in most years is not adequate," said Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer for the Deschutes National Forest. And so, "fire borrowing" takes place with money from other areas like vegetation management and wildlife going to cover suppression costs. Nelson-Dean said efforts are being made to have forest fires treated like other natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.

It's easy to be an armchair quarterback when fires start in the wilderness. But being on the front lines and making the difficult decision requires a wealth of knowledge and experience not possessed by the average citizen. When the Milli Fire started on August 10 as the result of lightning strikes, many people reiterated a persistent myth that "the Forest Service just lets fires burn in the wilderness." That is actually not their policy.

From the time a fire is first spotted, fire managers and personnel are working on it. Many different decisions are required, taking into account the fire's location, firefighter safety, weather conditions, number of other active fires, resource and manpower availability, public safety, and political considerations.

There are hundreds of pieces in play across the nation at any given time when a fire starts on the Sisters Ranger District (see "How did the Milli fire get so big?" The Nugget, September 20).

Even before the Milli Fire was completely contained, work had already begun on rehabbing the areas impacted by firefighting efforts. During cleanup the Forest Service also takes into account cultural or historical sites in the area, sensitive plants, and wildlife. The old Santiam Wagon Road runs parallel to Highway 242 in places and crosses it in several locations. Attempts were made to avoid impact on the historic road when conducting cleanup.

The Oregon Department of Transportation asked the Forest Service to assess potential hazards along Highway 242. They looked at the steepness of the slopes next to the highway and the condition of the trees 100 feet out from either side of the road. They surveyed thousands of trees, taking into consideration tree height, amount of burn, predominant prevailing winds in the area, amount of tree lean over the highway, and weakened roots.

According to Amy Tinderholt, acting Sisters District Ranger, the fire and the necessary burnout operations that kept the fire from reaching Black Butte Ranch impacted seven miles of highway. Thirteen-and-a-half miles of highway are being treated, involving substantial work.

Traveling up to Windy Point, the varying level of the fire's intensity is evident, with some areas completely unburned (12 percent of the fire footprint), 38 percent with low impact, 38 percent moderately impacted, and the highest intensity fire areas devoid of any live vegetation (12 percent).

The trees that have burned lower branches with brown needles and a healthy green crown will usually survive. It will actually be better prepared for another fire because the healthy crown is higher and the brush has been burned away. The same is true in prescribed burns. Right after the burn, trees may look dead, but if the crown is green it will usually survive and be more resilient, with fewer fuels around it.

For the past three weeks, private local contractors have been busy in the area of the burn, removing damaged trees and dead snags to reduce the danger to motorists, bicyclists, and hikers who will be using Highway 242 after the snow is cleared next spring. The Forest Service has specifically chosen local contractors for their knowledge of the area and to support them financially, as they were unable to work during forest closures due to high temperatures and then the fires.

In the first seven days, four crews, using mechanized feller-bunchers, and working long hours, were able to quickly remove trees in areas without steep slopes. The machinery grabs a tree, saws through the trunk, and swings it around to load. Then hand-fallers were brought in to remove trees on the steep slopes using chain saws, and wedges to direct the falls. The trees are dropped and skidded to one location where equipment called the "shovel" picks them up and loads them on the log trucks.

The cleanup process has faced a number of challenges including the steepness of slopes on either side of the highway, very limited shoulders on the road, the fact that Highway 242 is a scenic byway with plants and wildlife to take into consideration, and the rapid approach of winter. Trucking the logs out has been a challenge because of the winding, narrow road with blind corners and no place to turn around.

The viable timber that is being removed will be sold commercially to help defray the cost of fire cleanup. Usually the logs are decked (stacked) onsite but, in the Milli operation, the logs are being "hot loaded" right onto log trucks and driven down out of the burn because there is no place to store them. The timber is usable for lumber for up to two years and after that, any salvage is only suitable as firewood.

The Forest Service has been working quickly to get as much cleanup done as possible before the winter snows begin in earnest. They have already experienced a snowfall as well as two periods of rain showers which washed the soil - which has the consistency of flour - down across the highway, necessitating two cleanups. Logging was scheduled to be completed last Friday.

Now ODOT will come in to repair and clean out culverts, patch damaged areas of asphalt, and clean the narrow shoulders of the highway. Erosion of soil on steep slopes lacking vegetation will be a continual concern. In all probability Highway 242 will not reopen before its usual closing for the winter.

Peter Murphy, public information officer for ODOT, acknowledged that the snow gates can't keep snowmobilers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers out of the area. He does want people to be aware of hidden dangers once the snow flies. Fallen trees and branches hidden by the snow will present safety hazards to recreationists who won't be able to see them under the snow. The weight of winter snows will bring down more trees and branches, creating falling hazards from above.

Osborne commented, "There is a ton of work to still do with prescribed burns and mechanical thinning. It is difficult to keep up with it and start new projects."

Tinderholt indicated that due to damage to the Black Crater Trail, both by the fire and subsequent rains, it will not be open to the public next year.

"The foot tread is nonexistent and has to be completely rebuilt and there will be serious snag hazard in the area," she said.

Although the section of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sisters Ranger District was not significantly impacted by the Milli Fire, other sections were, due to other fires. There will be necessary logouts and erosion work done. Over the winter, discussions will be held about where to reroute the PCT while work is undertaken.

The Forest Service maintains a list of current trail and campground closures, so be sure and check before hiking or camping in the Sisters Ranger District.

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