Fire on the mountain: Butte burn improves ecology, safety

Smoke from the ‘controlled burn’ on Powell Butte could be seen all over outer East Portland. See amazing exclusive photos, from the air and ground, and learn why this was a “good” fire …

Ten of the 30+ acres burned on Powell Butte, as seen from the air, reduced burnable materials near homes surrounding the park.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
While usually firefighters put out fires, members of Portland Fire & Rescue, Gresham Fire Department, and other area agencies, were busy setting more than 30 acres of Powell Butte ablaze on August 25.

The three organizations involved with this incendiary exercise say it serves four purposes:

  • Reducing the possibility of uncontrolled wildfires,
  • Removing non-native plants,
  • Practicing wild land firefighting, and
  • Testing NET team communication systems.

Lt. Allen Oswalt, Portland Fire & Rescue, and Mart Hughes, PP&R Ecologist, keep an eye on the largest “burn area” of the day.

Wildfire abatement
In 2006, the city received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Oregon Emergency Management to reduce the potential for significant wildfires in several natural areas within Portland, according to Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) District 2 Battalion Chief Kevin Brosseau.

“We’re lighting smaller fires around the edges of five different sections, and letting them burn in until the fuel [weeds] is gone,” says Brosseau, the PF&R officer in charge of fighting wild land fires.

It may look like a wildfire, but this “prescribed burn” is carefully controlled by firefighters.

Improving Powell Butte’s ecology
“Another piece of this project,” says Mart Hughes, Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) Parks Ecologist, “is that this an ecological management program for the Butte.”

This burn acts as a “natural process” for Powell Butte’s grassland, Hughes tells us – as we watch the fire from atop a ridge on the butte.

“This prescriptive fire will reduce flammable non-native vegetation, including Himalayan Blackberry and other invasive, non-native species,” continues Hughes. “This burn helps prepare the site for seeding with native grasses and perennials. These will, in time, result in a grassland with higher wildlife habitat values.”

Wildfire fighting personnel and equipment from Boring to West Portland were participants in the burn project. Inset: the portable pool keeps water on hand for the tender trucks.

Visible from Vancouver
From the air, our pilot, Brent Grabinger, notes two plumes of smoke, as we climb to altitude from Pearson Airport in Vancouver, WA.

As we approach the burn zone, we can see many types of wilderness firefighting equipment deployed. Next to the pump trucks are what look like giant backyard play-pools. Brosseau later tells us these are actually temporary water reservoirs.

Looking down, we see that that Powell Butte is ringed by neighborhoods, homes, and retail stores.

Tommy Schroeder, a firefighter specializing in fighting fires where countryside meets the city, rides a specially-equipped ATV, while tending the fire-line on Powell Butte.

“Burn to Learn” exercise
On the ground, our escort on Powell Butte is Lt. Allen Oswalt, Portland Fire & Rescue’s Public Information Officer.

“If a fire here got out of hand, with all the dry brush on the butte, it could do a lot of damage,” Oswalt comments, as we creep up a trail toward the main staging area, riding in a fire department four-wheel-drive rig.

Specialized “brush units” from all over the greater Portland area – this one, from Boring – practice their wilderness firefighting skills at the controlled burn.

“We have a lot of areas in outer East Portland that have urban/wilderness interface areas,” Oswalt explains. “Our main goal is to help PP&R with their ecological project, and reduce the fuels. But also, we get the opportunity to keep our people’s wildfire-fighting skills sharp. Fighting wilderness fires is different than fighting structure fires.”

Using a “drip torch”, a firefighter lights a dry grassy area on fire.

Along the edge of a field, a firefighter is walking through dry grasses, dribbling a flaming mixture of kerosene and gasoline from what looks like a watering can.

Saying they usually put fires out, Oswalt adds, “Usually people don’t think of fire doing good, but this fire will be doing the ecosystem up here a real favor.”

David Fischer and Jason Campbell get information about the burning program from the NET Coordinator, Patty Hicks.

Emergency team training
In the public parking area on the north side of Powell Butte we meet Centennial Neighborhood volunteer Patty Hicks.

“I’m a team leader for the Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) here,” Hicks says as she cautions visitors about the burn. “They didn’t close the park – but I am kind of surprised people want to walk and bike here today.”

For their NET team members, this burn helps them develop their skills working with people. “And, we’re practicing communicating among one another. Because of the topography and trees, we are relaying communications. Also, we’re discovering which communication devices work best.”

Neighborhood Emergency Teams, Hicks says, are neighborhood volunteers, who are trained to help their neighbors in time of emergency. “We do this because we love our community, and our neighbors.”

You can help restore the natural ecology of Powell Butte by volunteering to help replant the burned areas with native plant species.

Participate in replanting
“We’re going to be doing a lot of restoration planting, including Oregon oak,” PP&R’s Hughes says.

“We’ll have volunteer plantings. If people here in outer East Portland want to help their community with land stewardship, this is a great place to do it. And, you can’t beat the view while you’re working,” Hughes adds.

Check East Portland News Service – we’ll publish dates and times for the upcoming restoration projects.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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