Fire on the mountain! Powell Butte set ablaze

The smoke from the fires could be seen across the greater Portland area. See why the firefighters intentionally torched 34 acres of natural area …

Using special fire-starting gadget called a drip-torch, Portland Fire & Rescue’s brush-fire specialists light fires that burn off weeds on Powell Butte.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Although firefighters train throughout their careers to proficiently extinguish fires, crews from the Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) Urban/Wildland Interface team proved equally adept at igniting a firestorm on Powell Butte on Thursday, September 4.

“This controlled burn actually promotes natural area conservation,” explained PF&R spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt, as we watched fires sweep across acres of grassland. “This ‘prescribed burn’ also reduces fuel sources for wild fires. And, it’s an excellent training opportunity for all agencies involved, including those who would assist at a wildfire but are not usually familiar with combating such an emergency.”

PF&R spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt keeps his eye on the progress of the prescribed burn at Powell Butte.

Seeing some good fire
At 1:00 p.m., firefighters and Parks Bureau personnel walked along the edge of a section of open field, carrying drip-torches that dribble a flaming mixture of diesel fuel and kerosene on the dried grasses.

The breeze picked up, and the fire crackled loudly as it swept across the parcel. Even standing downwind, one could feel the heat of the blaze from yards away.

“We were concerned that the recent rain would reduce the effectiveness of the burn today,” Oswalt commented. “But, it looks like it’s burning pretty well. We’re seeing some good fire.”

Firefighters on ATVs, and in “brush rig” fire trucks, made sure the fire stayed within the prescribed burn area. After the flames died down, the pros doused hot spots before moving on to burn another section of land.

Fire crews from Portland and Gresham stand by to make sure the fire is contained and hotspots are extinguished.

Conservation through conflagration
We turned to Mart Hughes, a staff ecologist with Portland Parks & Recreation, who explained how burning flora helps promote conservation.

“The purpose of this burn is to return a natural process to Powell Butte’s grassland,” Hughes made clear. “The prescriptive fire will reduce flammable non-native vegetation, including Himalayan Blackberry and other invasive, non-native species, and prepare the site for seeding with native grasses and perennials. These will, in time, result in a grassland with higher wildlife habitat values.”

Visitors are warned, but not excluded
Oswalt drove us up Powell Butte’s bumpy, winding trails to get a better look at the fire from a high ridge. Along the way, we saw a barefoot bicyclist reading a book alongside a trail.

“We’ve publicized the burn, and Neighborhood Emergency Team members are notifying citizens entering the Butte from any trailhead. We’re asking them to limit their use of the park, but we’re not removing them,” stated Oswalt. “We’ve established several ‘safety zones’ in case of an emergency.”

Crews burn one section of land at a time, making sure the fire doesn’t get out of control.

A multi-bureau effort
The Wildfire Risk Reduction project – a three-year effort which ends in 2009 – is funded by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The project, Oswalt noted, is a partnership among PF&R, PP&R, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, and the Portland Office of Emergency Management. “Gresham Fire and Emergency Services are helping manage the fire today,” added Oswalt.

Because several crews light sections on fire simultaneously, the active burning took about two hours. Fire crews then stayed late into the afternoon, making sure all the hot spots were safely extinguished.

“Fire Photo of the Day” – Repeated attempts to light this bramble with the drip-torch didn’t work. A little extra accelerant helped set this blackberry bush ablaze.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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