As Dollar Lake fire cools, questions rise

September 17, 2011

It's not out yet, and it won't be until autumn douses the mountainside with several days of good hard rain, but the Dollar Lake Fire is slowing its gallivant across the north side of Mount Hood.

Cool, cloudy weather and high humidity has meant quiet days on the fire this week, allowing crews to make significant progress in mopping up east lines of the fire and access interior hot spots that continued to consume unburnt islands of fuel.

A hotshot crew was also able to "hook" the northwest corner of the fire along Cathedral Ridge, which was considered a crucial point to secure.

In response to firefighting efforts, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, submitted a letter this week to Mt. Hood National Forest Supervisor Chris Worth. In his letter, Walden addresses concerns he has over the initial response the Forest Service had to the fire on Saturday, Aug. 27.

"As a lifelong Oregonian who recreates on Mount Hood and has been a longtime advocate for forest health and the mountain, I have great concerns about reports I have heard that this fire could have been extinguished much earlier during its infancy," the letter states. "I understand and appreciate the fact that you and your crews are currently doing everything possible to contain and ultimately extinguish this fire …

"Unfortunately, local residents who live nearby the fire have relayed to me that the USFS could have launched a much faster response to this fire during its early stages but instead chose to let the fire, then only a handful of acres, burn."

The fire, thought to be caused by lightning late Aug. 26, was first spotted the following morning in the Dollar Lake area south of Laurance Lake.

According to County 9-1-1 records, the first report of smoke in the area came in at 9:22 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 27.

The smoke was slight and the fire was small, but knowing the terrain, fuel type and weather conditions of the area, USFS personnel in the area knew it was a dangerous situation.

"The point of origin was not in a drivable location," said Peter Frenzen, fire information officer.

"And you don't just walk out in front of a fire and put it out. Fire burning in heavy, dry fuel with wind and steep terrain is extremely dangerous. You have to be organized and methodical about it."

By that afternoon - the fire spreading - a crew of smokejumpers was ready to jump in and surround the fire before it got out of control. Winds started to pick up, however, further fueling the fire and making the jump too hazardous, according to Frenzen.

The plan shifted and the smokejumpers were going to hike into the fire, but they were diverted to another incident in central Oregon.

"There was no intent to just let it burn," Frenzen said. "But there was a lot of stuff going on in other areas of the state, and a lot of fires that were a lot bigger."

Resources, including helicopters used for dropping buckets of water on hot spots, were tied up in other, larger fires such as Cascades Complex and were not immediately available.

By Sunday, Aug. 28, resources were dispatched to the fire, including local crews, a helicopter and a crew of hotshots. That night thunderstorms hovered over the mountain, pushing columns of strong wind straight down over the fire.

By the next morning it had grown to nearly 500 acres, visible by a column of dark smoke rising above the summit of Oregon's highest peak. Efforts went into full suppression mode the following morning as a Type II incident management team was ordered to battle the blaze.

"After the fire is under control, I ask that you please brief me on the timeline and decisions made during the earliest stages of the fire," Walden's letter concluded. "I also ask that you and your staff provide me with details about the forest health conditions and land designations in the burned areas …"

"As the series of events that went into play, Ranger (Daina) Bambe made the right decisions," Worth said.

Forest health as a natural part of its lifecycle is a topic the Dollar Lake Fire brings to the front burner.

"The Bull Run is a very resilient watershed," Terry Black, Portland Water Bureau, said last week while overlooking the fire from Lolo Pass area. "Fire has been a part of this forest for thousands of years. It has burned through here before and it will burn through here again."

One thing that has changed in the last 100 or so years, however, is human activity such as forest management practices and fire suppression.

With the natural cycle of fire disrupted, if not removed, in the Mt. Hood National Forest over the last century, when fire does enter the system, if left alone it tends to get increasingly destructive. Without that cycle, what were once healthy, low-level fires creeping along the forest floor burning needles, duff and dead branches turns into the destructive, soil-baking blazes that run out of control, annihilate forests and cost tens of millions of dollars to extinguish.

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