What's Tony Thinking

Memorial Day, Fire and Bears


It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the un-official beginning of summer. Where we are, in the Wallowa Mountains, Memorial Day is living up to that billing with clear, warm days — more so than usual for this time of year.

But unalloyed blissful enjoyment of idyllic weather is, alas, a thing of our clueless, if cheerful, past. This week the Wallowa County Commissioners declared we are officially in a “Drought.” That seems to be the case over much of the interior west. Though the winter snow pack was pretty good here and in the Cascades, rainfall has been way down. The soil and brush are already dry.

Which means thinking about something we didn’t used to think about so much: wildfire.

This morning we attended the annual meeting of the Wallowa Lake Homeowners Association. “Democracy in action,” Linda reminded me as the sound system predictably went on the fritz. When it came back on someone asked the same question that had been asked ten minutes earlier about a budget item that had already been passed. What did Churchill say? “Democracy is the worst form of government imaginable, except for every other.”

Big interest around a program called “Fire Wise.” It is affiliated with the U. S. Department of Agriculture, which has the National Forests under its remit. The idea is to do what can be done to reduce fire danger in the “ignition zone,” i.e. 200′ in all directions around a dwelling. Beyond that the effort is to reduce the flammable material that has accumulated on the floor of these drier east side forests. Sounds like “infrastructure” (and good jobs) to me!

All of this rests on a change in forest management philosophy which was highlighted in a couple of community programs this week in nearby Joseph. For a generation environmentalists and timber industry were at complete loggerheads, with each representing an extreme; no cuts to clear-cuts. Now, there’s a new coalescence around the understanding that forests need to be managed and not just in order to maximize the timber harvest, but as a complex ecological system with mega-fire prevention one of the concerns.

That shift means that the two sides have come together around taking out the build-up of low-level, highly flammable material and smaller trees, to protect more mature trees and the forest itself. Native Americans did this with controlled burns. Nowadays, some area mills have completely re-engineered themselves for these changes and to handle smaller trees.

The bigger driver is, of course, the big fires and destruction of homes and entire towns in Oregon and California in recent years. These have gotten the attention of people, power companies and local governments. Which is good. Hence, programs like “Fire-Wise” and shifts in forest management. But there’s a lot of catch-up to do and almost everyone says the situations will get worse before it gets better.

Climate change is a big part of that. It has extended the warmer, drier season. “Fire season” used to be three or four months. Now, it is six to eight months, even year round in some areas.

Besides doing our part to clean up our “ignition zone,” we’ve enjoyed a couple of excursions to favorite places. We went to what locals refer to as “The Imnaha” on Wednesday. It is a spectacular canyon land to the east of us, the run-up to “Hell’s Canyon.” The latter is the world’s deepest canyon. The Snake River runs through on its way to the Columbia.

When I was a kid a favorite family outing was to drive to the Hat Point Lookout on the western rim of Hell’s Canyon and have a breakfast cookout: bacons, eggs, potatoes, coffee. That meant we were up and on our way by 4:30 a.m. in order to catch the sunrise over the Seven Devils Mountains. Linda and I drove that Hat Point Road this week (not at 4:30 a.m.), where we came upon a dozen folks in groups of two and three who were hunting bears. “Spring bear season” ends on Memorial Day, so the smart bears will stay in their caves another couple days. I didn’t even know there was a bear season!

We also got out on the Zumwalt Prairie yesterday, which like Hell’s Canyon, boasts a superlative. It is the largest surviving (never tilled) grassland prairie in North America. A land of many hawks, falcons and eagles enjoying the prairie squirrels. We saw a small herd of about two dozen elk as they crested a hill on the Zumwalt. You can make out a half dozen or so, stopping to look back at us as they made the top of the hill and safety. (All photos by Linda Robinson).

As you can see in all three of these photos, the clouds are amazing here. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” as the Psalms put it.

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