Dollar Lake fire will ultimately be 'beneficial to the forest'

September 24, 2011

With a crew name like Dust Busters, it's no mystery what Jason Barbee, Braton Jurasevich and Kevin Gehrig are doing with two Pulaskis and trowel.

Miles up a steep trail from the nearest vehicle, the three -- and dozens of others -- were up by sunrise, ready with leather boots, gloves and faces, hiking into the western reaches of the Dollar Lake Fire before most valley residents have had their morning coffee.

Picking away at a charred stump on the steep, rocky edge of Cathedral Ridge, the three - part of a contract crew out of Eugene - search for hotspots that would hardly put up a smoke, but could reignite a fire on a hot windy day.

It's tedious work, and there's nothing easy about it.

"Once the flames are gone, there's still a lot going on that the public doesn't necessarily think about," said Mike Smith, Division-G supervisor trainee. Smith, a Colorado resident, was reassigned to the Dollar Lake Fire after working fires in Texas. "There's still a tremendous amount of important work to do, from clearing gear and pulling miles of hose to rehabbing lines, putting in water bars and the meticulous job of searching for hot spots."

Thursday was Smith's 12th straight day on the fire, and for several days Division G was the frontline of the battle between the 6,000-acre fire pushing west and crews battling to keep it from pushing beyond Cathedral Ridge.

"It took some serious hard work and heads-up firefighting to catch it where we did," Smith said. "I was up here when the fire pushed into the canyon. It spread through the moss and lichen first, torching the tops of trees before the fire ever hit the ground. If it broke over the ridge and ran much more to the west, we would have lost it. We'd be looking at a much bigger beast if that happened.

"This has been a Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde fire," Smith said from a rocky vista on the Mazama Trail. "At times it laid low and was relatively calm; at other times there was extreme and unpredictable fire behavior unlike anything I've ever seen. With the terrain, the views, the fuel and weather conditions, it has been a stunningly beautiful and dauntingly difficult fire to fight."

As it is now, the fire is sized at just over 6,300 acres, about double the size of the Gnarl Ridge Fire of 2008 that burned on the northeast side of Mount Hood. The eastern edge of the Dollar Lake Fire met the western edge of the Gnarl Ridge Fire at the base of Eliot Canyon, creating a ribbon of burnt area around about half of the mountain; from Cathedral Ridge on the west side to Gnarl Ridge on the east.

Although the two fires - both of which burned through August and September - occurred in similar fuel types and similar terrain, the end result is quite different.

Cedar Drake, lead fire effects monitor for the Dollar Lake Fire, evaluated the severity of the burn zone and had the following to say:

"Gnarl Ridge was primarily a high severity wildfire that resulted in near complete canopy mortality along the east flank of Ghost Ridge. This was a stand replacement fire, meaning in essence that the "slate was wiped clean." Forest soils, down to mineral soil, were reduced to ash and ecological succession (the progression of vegetative replacement in disturbed areas from forbs to shrubs to trees) must begin from the most basic levels.

"In comparison, the Dollar Lake fire provides an excellent representation of a mixed severity fire; creating a mosaic pattern of varying fire severity within the burn perimeter. While there are pockets of high intensity stand replacing burned areas, a large portion of the fire is of moderate and low intensity, characterized by 'underburning.' These underburns tend to consume dead and downed material and younger understory trees without significantly affecting the larger canopy trees.

"These types of fires are ecologically significant and beneficial to the forest in that they 'clean out' pockets of diseased and insect-weakened trees and provide valuable 'gaps' in the canopy which increase species biodiversity and provide forage to wildlife.

"Forests in our region have always burned on an irregular schedule dictated by natural factors. Without periodic wildfire forests often become weakened by insects and disease.

"Mixed severity mosaiced wildfires like the Dollar Lake fire provide an important opportunity to maintain the ecological integrity of forested ecosystems."

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