The Wenatchee World has an article that reviews two prescribed fires that escaped control on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington earlier this month, the Beehive and the Preston-Fox fires. Here is an excerpt.
WENATCHEE In early October, when it seemed wildfire season had come to a close, two fires on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest burned out of control.
Intentionally ignited by the U.S. Forest Service as prescribed fires, parts of the Beehive Reservoir Fire southwest of Wenatchee, and the Preston-Fox Fire west of Entiat became uncontrolled wildfires. The agency called in helicopters, hotshot crews and other resources to get the fires under control.
The Forest Service is conducting more and larger controlled burns throughout the Pacific Northwest. In 2002 it burned a total of 34,300 acres in Washington and Oregon, and that figure had more than doubled to about 82,500 acres this year, said regional Forest Service spokesman Tom Knappenberger.
And with more acres to burn, and only short windows in the spring and fall to burn them, fire officials say it’s not a surprise that some of the fires get away.
“You can’t have large prescribed fires without expecting to lose a fire here and there,” said Bobbie Scopa, fire management officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
She said the Forest Service is trying to burn more acres without spending more money and the only way to do that is to burn larger units.
“If you think about the forest being 3.8 million acres, and say we were burning 10,000 to 15,000 acres a year, we’re not going to make a big enough impact on the forest by doing that,” she said. “We’re trying to increase the size of our projects so we can make a difference.”
Forest spokeswoman Robin DeMario said it’s tough to determine exactly how much money the Forest Service spent to suppress these fires beyond what the agency was already spending to under-burn the areas.
Only about 45 acres of the 600 acres burned in Beehive, and about 100 acres of 1,400 acres burned in the Preston-Fox were not slated for prescribed fire, she said.
The cost of fighting those fires ranged from $600 to $800 per acre, compared with about $30 it costs to conduct a controlled burn, DeMario said.
“We try to be good stewards of the land. And we try to be cost-conscious with American tax dollars, which is why we try to do prescribed burning. It costs a lot less,” she said.
No homes were threatened by either blaze, but the Beehive fire did burn about 40 acres of Longview Timber Corp. property.
Company representative Steve Tift said much of the fire stayed on the ground, but climbed into some trees which now have orange needles. He said he won’t know until next spring if the trees will survive. “We hate to lose any timber,” he said. But added, “Fire in Eastern Washington is just part of life.”
The Preston-Fox Fire burned about 85 acres of the Entiat Experimental Forest, where Forest Service researchers are conducting ongoing studies. That 1,290-acre fire started as a 10-acre test plot that escaped.
Winds pushed both fires out of control.
Scopa said the Forest Service does all it can to get an accurate weather forecast, but the weather doesn’t always do what’s expected.
“We take weather readings on the site for a few days prior to when we’re burning,” she said. The readings include things like fuel moisture and humidity along with winds speed, wind direction, temperature and other factors. The information is sent to the National Weather Service in Spokane, which comes up with a forecast for the specific site before the controlled burn is ignited, Scopa said.
“Is it foolproof, every time you ignite a burn? No, it isn’t,” she said. “This is not an exact science.”
Scopa said it’s never a good thing to lose control of a prescribed burn, but in both fires, the blaze that escaped acted more like a controlled burn than a wildfire — burning out the understory without burning up into the crowns of trees, thereby leaving the larger, older trees in a healthier ecosystem.
“We’re not happy we weren’t able to keep it inside the line, but the area that burned outside the line was just as beneficial, from a resource-benefit standpoint,” she said.
More information about the Preston-Fox fire can be found HERE.
The Baker River Hotshots Tweeted about both fires in early October.