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TILLER -- The Whiskey complex of fires burned through more than 17,000 acres of the Umpqua National Forest this summer, but even before the last smoldering snag was out, the stewards of the land were planning what to do next. 

The fires, like the massive Douglas complex south of Grants Pass, were sparked by lightning on July 26, joining a list that made this the worst year for wildfires on state and federal land in Oregon in more than a decade. The Whiskey complex alone required 932 firefighters and $23 million to contain. 

 Now to move forward, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to balance the wants of environmentalists, loggers and recreationalists with their own sometimes Byzantine forest rules and regulations. That means salvaging and selling timber that survived, leaving legacy trees behind, restoring streams, even harvesting and selling the woody debris left over, including some wood that could be turned into charcoal. 

 The Whiskey complex was named after the biggest wildfire at 16,185 acres -- among three on Southern Oregon's Umpqua National Forest. Like most wildfires, it left behind a mosaic burn pattern; in some places, it crept through the understory, beneficially burning accumulated forest debris and downed trees; in others, it raged into the forest's upper story, destroying even the largest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, ponderosa pine and incense cedars.

But thanks to an unusual marine layer of damp clouds that moved into the 100,000- acre forest on the western slopes of the Cascades in mid-August, much of the fire stayed close to the ground. 

 "The fire wasn't totally killing the trees," said Donna Owens, the Tiller Ranger District's head ranger. "The fire stayed mostly on the ground -- which is a natural way of cleaning up forest debris and litter." Less than 20 percent of the acreage burned suffered severe to moderate damage.

Last week, more than 50 people -- retired and active loggers, environmentalists, water resource managers, community members and Forest Service scientists -- joined Owens on a tour of the fire's aftermath.

After a briefing at the ranger station along the South Umpqua River about 30 miles east of Canyonville and Interstate 5, the group piled into SUVs and station wagons, traveling through a locked gate into an area closed to the public. It's dangerous terrain because unstable fire-damaged trees along miles of forest roads could fall and rocks on hillsides denuded of vegetation could come tumbling down.

The tour was part of the Whiskey fire salvage and recovery project, 

a plan that focuses on six main goals: Salvaging timber along roads to sell; salvaging timber inside the forest to sell and retaining large, or "legacy," trees and snags; replanting trees for future timber sales and for future forest health; removing brush along roads to better manage future fires and to improve the watershed; doing prescribed burns to reduce future fires; and continuing to monitor the forest to prevent noxious weed infestation.

While ranger districts all have a basic federal outline to follow on recovery efforts, each district maps out its own specific approach. 

"We're listening -- that's the biggest thing we've been doing over the past month or so," Owens said. "Listening to our various user groups, taking them on field trips."

While the plan hinges on public input, it's not without problems and controversy: "We're not going to satisfy everyone,'' Owens said.

She does, however, hope to avoid what may happen east of the Cascades in the Sisters Ranger District.

The district ranger there plans to advertise for bids on salvage logging on the area burned by September 2012 Pole Creek fire. Oregon Wild, which has urged the Forest Service to move away from salvage logging, hasn't decided whether to challenge the sale, said the Portland-based group's conservation director, Steve Pedery. 

 The Forest Service sometimes resorts to old school clear-cutting after a fire to recover the economic value of the trees, Pedery said.

But that's not an option under consideration in the Whiskey complex, Owens said. 

 ***

In a dense fog clinging to the craggy hills inside the Whiskey fire's boundaries, it was easy to see how the flames had crept along the ground, scorching but not burning or killing trees.

readmore at: www.oregonlive.com/

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