Preventing fire with fire

A firefighter uses a drip torch to light a controlled burn at the Hermiston Butte in 2015. 

The Umatilla County Fire District 1 will set fire to the Hermiston Butte Saturday in preparation for July 4. The burning may be rescheduled if it becomes too windy on Saturday.

The public is invited to observe the burning, which will take place from noon to 6 p.m. The district asks that those who wish to watch stay on the soccer field. Fire trucks will be stationed near the north end parking lots and the water spray park.

Around 30 firefighters will be at the scene from surrounding fire departments, including Echo, Pendleton, Umatilla, and UCFD1. The burn provides an opportunity for seasonal firefighters to train in fire suppression and cleanup.

Long-time residents will know that the burning is nothing new, but in recent years the controlled burn has stretched from just the north side to the south side of the Hermiston Butte as well following a 2016 fire, when firework embers set the south side on fire during the show.

The purpose of a controlled burn is to remove fuel — brush and grass — from the area to avoid future emergency fires, in part before the Fourth of July Celebration in Butte Park. Controlled burns happen all across the nation to remove different types of fuel, said UCFD1 Lieutenant Matt Hodge.

And while firefighters will be tackling the non-emergency fire this weekend, it can be hard to tell if the July 4 weekend will result in many fire calls. UCFD1 has four stations — two staffed and two volunteer — and some years all four get called out. Other years, Hodge said, the district is dealing with as little as one fire.

But high moisture from last winter has resulted in a lot of extra fuel growth, Hodge said.

“It’s already very deceptively dry. People need to be extremely careful,” Hodge said, “One errant spark could rip off an acre.”

According to the UCDF1 website, this time of year constitutes a “no burn period." The period excludes burns like small recreational fires, barbecues, and agricultural fires. People who have questions about the burning policy are encouraged to call Umatilla County Burning line at 1-541-278-6397.

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