Officials wait for chance to burn: weather conditions delay monitored procedures
October 16, 1999
By PAUL FATTIG
Fire crews at Crater Lake National Park are scanning the horizon for signs of coming wet weather to end the continued high fire danger.
So are their counterparts at the Oregon Caves National Monument, some 20 miles east of Cave Junction.
But they aren’t worried about the danger. Rather, they fear the window of opportunity for a prescribed burn this year is quickly closing.
Crater Lake officials hope to burn a 415-acre site in the northeast corner of the 183,224-acre park; Oregon Caves officials want to burn an eight-acre parcel near the main cave entrance.
The goal in both instances is to reduce a potentially hazardous brush buildup while reintroducing what has been a natural part of the ecological cycle since time began, officials said.
Each burn would be carefully monitored.
“We’re literally looking at the situation day-to-day,” said Chris Chiverton, assistant fire staff officer at the park. “We’re monitoring the weather on the site very closely.
“But we really can’t do anything while we’re still in high fire danger,” he added.
The problem is that weather in the higher elevations, like Crater Lake, can turn from summer to snow overnight, officials said. Early Friday morning, the mercury dropped to 26 degrees at park headquarters, located 6,500 feet above sea level.
At the lower-level Oregon Caves, a Pacific storm can blow in, slamming the prescribed-burn window closed for the season, officials said.
Although the National Weather Service office at the Medford airport forecasts clear skies through Wednesday, the long-range forecast calls for higher than normal precipitation this fall and winter.
Intense fire suppression, which began at the park in the 1930s, caused a dangerous buildup of flammable materials.
That changed in 1977 when park officials periodically experimented with planned burning. With the fire plan fine-tuned by revisions and a supplemental environmental assessment this year, the prescribed burns have become a matter of policy, albeit one that will be used infrequently.
The point is to reintroduce fire as a part of the natural environment, Chiverton said.
“People are realizing the positive benefits of fire over time,” he said, referring to prescribed burns in a controlled situation.
Those benefits can be seen in changes in plant life, observed John Roth, resource manager at the Oregon Caves. As evidence, he noted a prescribed burn at the monument in 1997.
“Since we’ve introduced fires, we have at least two species of plants (lilies) come back that have been gone from the monument for 40 years.”
“Those fires have allowed more light into the forest,” he added.
“We really haven’t had any fires here except for prescribed burns this century.”
Low-intensity fires clear away brush which consumes sunlight, water and nutrients, he explained.
The periodic low-intensity fires also remove the potential of catastrophic fires raging through heavy forests, he said.