Powell Butte burns, so native plants can live

And, you’ll be thankful to see why this incendiary activity may save homes and lives in the area – and give firefighters valuable wildland firefighting experience – all at the same time …

Firefighter/Paramedic Sean Fogarty lights a patch of tinder-dry field grass in Powell Butte Nature Park, using a specially designed canister of liquid fuel with an igniter on the end of the spout – it’s called a drip-torch.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The columns of smoke rising from the Powell Butte Nature Park towered into the azure, summertime sky – as a firestorm below consumed about 40 acres of vegetation on August 17 and 24.

But, unlike this year’s western wildfires that have destroyed homes and endangered citizens, these conflagrations were a “controlled burn” – intentionally set by Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) firefighters, at the request of Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R).

Firefighters light up a section of grassy area where a stand of 900 Oregon Oak trees will be planted.

Preparing to plant 900 oak trees
According to Mart Hughes, PP&R Ecologist assigned to the area, the Powell Butte grassland area is of significant size and importance to support birds of prey. The meadows on the butte, he noted, are the largest grassland area within the City of Portland, and they’re unique in their ability to support a diverse bird community.

“We use controlled burns to manage Powell Butte grassland – particularly to prevent the non-native invasive species, such as English Hawthorn, from taking over,” Hughes explained. “This year, the Parks Bureau and the Portland Water Bureau will plant approximately 900 Oregon Oak trees, a species that is adapted to [survive] frequent landscape fires, here on the butte.”

PF&R spokesman, Lt. Allen Oswalt talks with Mart Hughes, the Parks Bureau ecologist who is in charge of the Powell Butte burn operation.

The controlled-burn zones, Hughes added, focus on areas where they’ll be planting the oak trees. At the same time, the fire substantially removes accumulations of dead blackberries, brush, and grass.

“After past controlled burns on Powell Butte, PP&R has seeded in Willamette Valley wild flowers – and we’ll continue to reseed the burn area with small amounts of native wild flower seed, thus establishing Willamette Valley mix of wild flowers over a larger area on the butte,” Hughes smiled.

While some firefighters light the fires, others operate off-road “brush rigs”, quenching errant blazes.

Burns reduce risk of wildfires
As we traveled to the burn sites along with PF&R spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt, he told us that this burn is part of a three-year effort – ending this year – to reduce the potential for wildfire at Powell Butte and other natural areas, such as inner SE Portland’s Oaks Bottom.

Along the way, we saw unwary hikers being notified by Neighborhood Emergency Team volunteers that fires were being set – they were asked to stay clear of the burn areas, and limit their use of the park to the forested areas.

“We’ve had dry summers,” Oswalt said, as we bumped along the butte trails, observing firefighters preparing their off-road capable “brush rigs” and smaller firefighting ATVs. “And, subdivisions now encircle the butte. An out-of-control wildfire here could be disastrous to these neighborhoods. By carefully burning off the tinder-dry grassy areas – we call it ‘reducing the fuel load’ – we reduce burnable materials on the butte.”

Driving along the fireline, a brush rig driver and his crew get real-life experience of fighting fire at an urban/wildland interface.

Provides hands-on firefighter training
While most people think of Portland Fire & Rescued as being an urban fire department, Oswalt pointed out, the metro area hosts large areas of green and undeveloped parks. “Where the city meets the natural areas, we call it the urban/wildland interface – these are the areas where uncontrolled wildfires can destroy homes and businesses.”

All PF&R firefighters are trained in urban/wildland interface firefighting, Oswalt told us, as we watched firefighters use drip-torches to ignite sections of grassy meadows.

“Being an urban fire department, we are really experienced in structural firefighting – putting out fires in houses, commercial buildings, and high-rises,” commented the veteran firefighter. “But, we don’t get a lot of opportunity to practice our wildland firefighting in a ‘live’ setting. The kind of hands-on experience they’re getting today helps firefighters ‘get a picture in their mind’ of how to fight wildland fires. They get practical knowledge and skill beyond what we can give in training situations.”

What’s it like, being caught in the middle of a brush fire? These Gresham firefighters find out, during this exercise.

One of those “real life” skills, Oswalt added, is for crews to learn how to use their personal safety gear to stay out of harm’s way.

“This exercise also gives us excellent training in how to use fire to fight fire,” Oswalt continued. “By lighting fires today in this prescribed burn, we’re using that fire to ‘burn a perimeter out’ ahead of a wildfire, in order to take the fuel away from the fire, and making it snuff itself out.”

So, while our Fire Bureau can’t prevent wildfires – thanks to these exercises – they’re better prepared to subdue them. And, as a result of this prescribed burn, Powell Butte is now prepared to receive a forest of new, native Oregon Oak trees.

Out of harm’s way, water tenders and backup units stand ready, as their drivers watch the impressive pillar of smoke rise.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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