JOSEPH, Oregon. After several very quiet days, activity on the Granite Gulch Fire picked up Sunday, September 1, , although the most active burning was in interior pockets that hadn’t burned yet.
Breezier conditions and lower humidity today are expected to renew fire movement on the east and west flanks, which have driven the fire’s spread for the past several weeks.
“The west wind should help the fire continue to spread deeper in to the Last Chance basin where it can continue to ease around,” Incident Commander Adam Wing said. “I expect the east flank to continue to burn along the slope, with the wind causing short runs up the hill in front of itself.”
A Type 1 helicopter made several water drops to slow the progression of an existing spot fire in the riparian area on the south bank of the Minam River which grew to about 2 acres and moved up to the edge of an avalanche chute. A new spot fire six-tenths of mile downstream from Elk Creek also received water.
“I expect very little movements out of the spots south of the Minam and plan on continuing to keep them in check until we see what this next system will bring,” Wing said, adding “September is historically a tough time of the year for weather prediction, so we will have to play this one close before taking many chances,”
As has been the trend in recent weeks, the weather is expected to continue warming up and drying out over the next several days, as the next storm system moves into the area Wednesday or Thursday.
This cycling of burn periods — a series of warming and drying days stimulating fire activity, followed by a storm front that subdues activity — is typical in northeast Oregon. The Wallowa-Whitman averages 8 to 10 such cycles each fire season, however, fire managers do not take them for granted and continue to analyze historic, current and anticipated weather daily.
On Monday, activity on the Granite Gulch Fire was minimal, but expected to pick up and spread to the east and west as has been the pattern lately.
“The forecast is still calling for a warm, unstable period, followed by rain and storms on Thursday,” Incident Commander Adam Wing said. “This should allow the subalpine fir in Last Chance to actively burn some more.”
Smoke is more visible during active burn cycles, but doesn’t always correlate to the size of the fire.
“Even moderate fire growth can put out a lot of smoke,” said Bret Ruby, a fire behavior analyst assigned to the fire. “These more active burn days allow us to encourage the fire to move in the direction we want.”
For the past several weeks, fire managers have been gradually steering the fire into a patchwork of past burned areas, using a lighter version of traditional suppression techniques.
These burned areas create a natural buffer zone that will contain the Granite Gulch Fire, and fire in the area was overdue, according to Ruby who said, “We don’t see anything from Last Chance Fire across the Minam to the east until this. It was ready.”
It’s also important to note that conditions at the time of most past fires made a full suppression effort necessary, said Nathan Goodrich, fire management officer for the Eagle Cap Ranger District.
Every time a wildfire starts, fire officials assess the overall conditions at the time, including current and anticipated weather, potential effects of the fire, topography and rate of spread, among other factors, to determine if the fire can be safely managed for other resource benefits, such as habitat and forage.
The Granite Gulch Fire is one of only three in the past decade that have met that criteria.