September 21, 2002
Closer look inside wildfire shows that all is not
By JEFF BARNARD
The Associated Press
PASS - When Biscuit - the nation's biggest wildfire this year - was
on its hind legs and roaring last July, anyone looking at the towering
plumes of smoke in Southwestern Oregon could only wonder how anything
survive the inferno.
most of the flames have cooled, however, a look at the nearly
500,000 acres within the containment lines reveals a landscape typical
wildfire: More than half either did not burn, or burned at low intensity,
leaving mature trees green, standing, and better off.
a fire burns, unlike what is seen in cartoons, not every tree is
killed, not every plant is killed, not every acre is burned to nothing,"
said Eric Christiansen, fire behavior analyst on the elite federal
management team that stopped Biscuit from roaring into Oregon's Illinois
fire put the 17,000 people in the valley on evacuation alert as
it burned five cabins and threatened others, in the long run it maintained
the well-being of individual species and the forest as a whole, said
Atzet, the U.S. Forest Service ecologist for southwestern Oregon.
worst thing that we could have is to be so enamored of our forests
that we eliminate the processes that change them," Atzet said.
rings on old trees show fire returns to the area burned by Biscuit
every 70 years on average on the wetter west side and every 50 years
drier east side, said Atzet.
that fire burns depends on the mix of weather, fuel and terrain,
hot dry day, combined with steep ravines filled with heavy brush,
downed logs, and tightly packed trees, means flames twice the height
timber and temperatures up to 2,000 degrees.
would hardly notice the fire that comes through sparse timber in
flat rocky ground on a cool humid day with little wind. Even patches
scenarios can be found on Biscuit. As conditions changed through
each day and across the landscape, the fire intensity changed, creating
mosaic of different results.
map for assessing rehabilitation efforts showed 19 percent of
the Biscuit Fire area, about 95,000 acres, was unburned, and 41 percent,
about 205,000 acres, burned at low intensity, leaving green trees standing
and healthy while clearing out brush and small trees.
percent, about 78,500 acres, burned at high intensity, leaving
little but ash and charcoal behind, and 22.6 percent, about 113,000
burned at moderate intensity.
place to see the phenomenon is Babyfoot Lake. The fire burned hot on
steep slopes around the lake, but at the shore, where the water cooled
humidified the air and a towering cliff cut the wind, half the shoreline
did not burn. Centuries-old pine and Douglas fir stand as proof that
can't fully flex its muscles here.
phenomenon served to spare much of the vegetation along the
Illinois River, home to salmon and steelhead, said hydrologist Jon Brazier.
Service has yet to analyze just how past logging may have
affected fire behavior, an issue in the debate over how forests should
managed to reduce vulnerability to wildfire.
may not prove to be much of a factor.
been little cutting here since the 1980s, and the burn analysis
of the 1987 Silver Fire, which burned nearly 100,000 acres in the same
area, showed little difference between wilderness and areas that had
At a cost
of nearly $150 million, fighting Biscuit looks expensive. But
another way to look at it, Atzet said, would be to imagine Congress
appropriating $150 million to do prescribed burns restoring fire to
proper place in the ecosystem.
an ecological sense, we just invested $150 million," Atzet said.
the kalmiopsis bush, for which the Kalmiopsis Wilderness where
the fire started is named, depends on fire to kill the white fir that
competes with it for water, sunlight and nutrients, Atzet said.
bark on white fir gives it less protection from fire than
ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, with thick bark. Surviving trees do
a parasite that stunts Douglas fir, gets knocked back by
fire, said Ellen Goheen, a Forest Service plant pathologist.
creates huge brooms in trees," she said. "Those brooms act
wicks, taking ground fire to a crown fire."
out more widely by fire, trees are less susceptible to root
diseases, such as deadly Port Orford cedar root rot, which can be passed
root-to-root, she added. Heat kills the spores.
- an insect-eating plant also known as cobra plant - will
probably expand their command of hillside bogs now that competing plants
the edges have been killed, said Siskiyou ecologist Diane White.
leaching out of the ashes can stimulate acorns to sprout into oak
trees, giving them a head start on pines and firs waiting for the spring.
will sprout from the bole - the underground connection between the
trunk and the roots - after the top of the tree is killed.
pines not only need the heat of fire to open their cones, but
their seeds love the mineral soil exposed when fire burns off the duff
needles and bark built up over the years.
important that part of the system be burned at high severity,"
(c) The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon