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Controlled burn

Fire at Cooper Mountain Nature Park provides training ground while helping habitat
by: Jaime Valdez Jeremy Lawler of C&R Reforestation, monitors flames as they engulf a tree within the planned fire zone on Cooper Mountain. Smoke from the site could be seen from miles around last Thursday.

A controlled burn last week at the Cooper Mountain Nature Park accomplished three goals.

It reduced field brush that poses a safety risk to neighboring homes in the event of a fire.

It provided valuable, hands-on brush fire training to crews of Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue firefighters.

And it improved the environmental health of the 30-acre Big Prairie in the western portion of the 230-acre nature park, located on the southern edge of Beaverton at 18892 S.W. Kemmer Road.

'The burn went very, very well,' said John Gaddis, natural resource and trails specialist for the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District, which maintains the park. 'It was contained and performed safely.

'Beyond the biological benefits, the burn met our goal for fuels reduction in the planned area by reducing combustible brush and grass on the site. If a fire were to run through there, it would not burn nearly as hot.'

Before setting the fires Thursday morning, TVF and R crews tilled sections of soil and pre-burned a perimeter to keep the fire from spreading beyond the designated areas, using a technique called blacklining, said Cassandra Ulven, fire district spokeswoman.

'We only have a narrow window of time to conduct this kind of essential training,' she added. 'The air temperature, relative humidity and dry condition of the vegetation have allowed us to conduct the burn safely before the rain returns. It also reduces the risk of wildfire in a portion of our fire district where natural areas and development meet.

Throughout the day and into the night, firefighters controlled the path of the flames.

'The firefighters received hands-on experience on the ground in dealing with a wildfire,' Gaddis noted. 'During this burn, firefighters were able to see how a fire behaves as it moves in low grasses and along slopes. They got to see it move across the landscape, which is something they don't get when they go to seminars or are in the classroom.'

Ulven agreed and added, 'The conditions mirrored what we would find in a wildland fire... It was a very labor-intensive operation.'

The fire was extinguished before 6 p.m. TVF and R's team turned the site over to a privately contracted crew, who remained onsite through Saturday to conduct a fire watch and ensure hot spots didn't ignite any remaining vegetation.

Habitat restoration

The use of controlled burns is an important tool in mitigating non-native and invasive plant growth, improving wildlife habitat, restoring natural areas, recycling nutrients back into the soil and controlling pest problems, Gaddis added.

While this has been the fifth prescribed burn on Cooper Mountain since Metro began protecting portions of the natural area in 1997, this is the first burn performed since the nature park opened to the public two years ago.

The cooperative effort between Metro regional government, which owns the property, and both the park and fire districts is the latest effort to enhance wildlife habitat and improve the health of native species that make their home in the natural area.

'We've been planning this burn in preparation for prairie restoration work that will happen this winter,' Gaddis said. 'We've been collecting grasses and wildflower seeds that are native to this area.

'We're planning another burn for Little Prairie next summer.'

Cooper Mountain Nature Park is home to an array of habitats including mixed conifer forests, perched wetlands and rare oak woodlands. For years, logging and other human activities degraded the wildlife habitat. Since 1997, Metro staff, community partners and volunteers have planted 80,000 native trees and shrubs, seeded native grasses, removed invasive plants and performed a series of controlled burns to enhance oak and upland prairie habitat.

For more information about the nature park, its hiking trails and educational program offerings, visit www.thprd.org .