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Fire officials: Forest thinning was crucial in HK Complex battle

This photo shows how thinning kept the HK Complex Fire from burning the forest from beyond repair. A quick recovery is expected because of thinning. Photo courtesy of the USDA Forest Service.

News release from the USDA Forest Service: 

PENDLETON, Ore. – Proactive hazardous fuel treatments on the Heppner Ranger District of the Umatilla National Forest were instrumental in changing fire behavior and slowing the advance of the HK Complex, which burned approximately 2,700 acres. These treated acres were critical in keeping the wildfire shorter in duration, less costly, safer for firefighters, and reducing the severity of the burn.

The thinning treatments happened over the course of a decade through a project called the Wildcat Fuels Reduction and Vegetation Management Project (Wildcat). This 10,280-acre project, located approximately 15 miles south of Heppner, Oregon, was implemented in order to reduce fuels and the risks of stand replacing wildfire to the area through a variety of treatments including 4,020 acres of timber harvest activities and mechanical fuels treatments, followed by 2,760 acres of non-commercial thinning and (yet to be completed) 10,280 acres of prescribed under burning. Prior to treatment, the project area consisted of dense, overstocked mixed conifer stands loaded with dead and down fuels.

On Aug. 5, 2019, multiple new fires were reported on the Forest following widespread thunderstorms with no precipitation. Numerous new starts were reported near the Alder Creek Skookum Trailhead, approximately two miles east of Tupper Guard Station on the Heppner Ranger District. A total of 12 new fires were identified and managed together as the HK Complex. Hot and dry conditions, as well as strong afternoon winds, contributed to rapid fire growth.

Driven by the strong winds, the Little Bear Fire within the complex burned into the Wildcat project area. Once in the treated area, the fire behavior moderated, reducing flame lengths and allowing firefighters to more safely and effectively suppress the wildfire. The HK Complex was declared 100% contained on Aug. 29.

In addition to providing more opportunities for firefighters to safely engage and contain the fire, the fire thinned out the underbrush, small trees and shrubs, while leaving many of the large trees still intact.

The fire also successfully set back succession, providing some excellent forage for big game and good brood rearing habitat for upland game birds like grouse and wild turkeys. Additionally, 59% of the entire area burned at a low severity and only 1% was considered a high severity fire.

The HK Complex demonstrates the value of fuels treatment projects in improving forest health and reducing wildfire risk. The Forest will continue to monitor treatment activities and benefits from the HK Complex utilizing an interagency system called Fuel Treatment Effectiveness Monitoring (FTEM).  This learning tool allows agencies to better understand the effects of fuels reduction projects on wildfires across the landscape so we can tailor future treatments to further increase the Forest’s resiliency to natural disturbance.

For more information about the HK Complex, please visit: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6507/. For more information about projects on the Umatilla National Forest, please visit: https://www.fs.usda.gov/umatilla/.

The latest fire information will be posted on the Blue Mountains Fire Information Blog. To receive updates on fires in the Blue Mountains, follow our blog at http://bluemountainfireinfo.blogspot.com/.

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