- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

BAKER CITY, Ore. (AP) - The ponderosa pines that will transform the landscape left by the Cornet/Windy Ridge fire from black to green will start their life in a Medford nursery.

Thousands of seedling pines, enough to reforest about 1,000 acre, should be ready to be planted in the fire-scarred ground south of Baker City during the spring of 2017, said Joe Sciarrino of the Whitman Ranger District.

But that represents only a small start to a big project that probably will take three years.

Whitman District officials won’t know until late summer, after they’ve walked through the burn, how many acres will need to be replanted, Sciarrino said.

But the task is likely to amount to several thousand acres.

“We’re going to have to plant a lot of trees,” Sciarrino said.

The Cornet/Windy Ridge fire was the combined combustion of a pair of lightning-sparked fires that burned together in early August. The blaze covered 104,000 acres, ranging from near Hereford east through the Burnt River Canyon most of the way to Durkee and as far north as Interstate 84.

It was the biggest wildfire in Baker County history.

Based on satellite imagery of the fire, Forest Service officials estimated that they would need to plant trees on about 16,000 acres, Sciarrino said.

However, he said the satellite photographs tend to exaggerate the extent of the damage.

“I expect that (acreage) number will go down when we actually go out this summer and survey the area,” he said.

Even so, the reforestation job is likely to be among the larger on the Whitman District since the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the 1989 Dooley Mountain fire.

Indeed the tree-planting in some areas will in effect duplicate the effort from a quarter-century ago.

The Cornet/Windy Ridge fire burned through about 8,300 acres that were burned in 1989 and were replanted with seedlings, mostly ponderosa pines, in the early 1990s, Sciarrino said.

Many of those trees were scarcely larger than Christmas tree size when the wind-fanned Cornet/Windy Ridge fire blew through in August.

The fire, as it did elsewhere, burned through the reforested acres in what Sciarrino calls a “mosaic pattern.”

That means the flames charred all vegetation to ash in some areas, stayed on the ground in others, and left certain spots unscathed.

Sciarrino said Forest Service officials, during preliminary surveys soon after the fire, noticed no discernible difference in the fire’s behavior in reforested areas where some of the young trees had been cut several years ago, and areas that had not been thinned.

About 40 percent of the acreage replanted after the Dooley Mountain fire had been thinned before the Cornet/Windy Ridge fire, Sciarrino said. Most of those acres were on relatively gentle slopes that were easier for the tree-cutters to access.

Forest officials’ goal this summer is to study the burned area and decide which of three approaches to take with each acre, Sciarrino said:

. Needs to be replanted with seedlings

. Doesn’t need to be replanted with seedlings because enough trees survived the fire to constitute a healthy forest

. Natural regrowth, via seeds from mature trees that survived the fire, will restock the forest with a sufficient number of seedlings

The need for tens of thousands of seedling trees didn’t take Whitman District officials by surprise, Sciarrino said.

Last spring, as a theoretical exercise, they looked at the district’s ability to reforest as much as 10,000 acres.

Fortunately, Sciarrino said, the district’s inventory of seeds is relatively high.

“We haven’t had to plant a large number of trees for a while,” he said.


Information from: Baker City Herald, https://www.bakercityherald.com/

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