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Burning for butterflies at Fitton Green

Walter Waibel uses a drip torch to ignite a controlled burn at Fitton Green Natural Area on Friday. (Andy Cripe | Corvallis Gazette-Times)

Controlled fires clear meadows for habitat restoration work

Decked out in hard hats, tactical harnesses and fire-retardant Nomex clothes, crews from the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Corvallis Fire Department conducted a controlled burn Friday on several acres of meadowland at Fitton Green Natural Area.

The purpose of the exercise was to clear the way for a habitat improvement project at the 308-acre Benton County park in the hills west of Corvallis to benefit two threatened butterfly species.

But it was also a chance for less experienced crew members to hone their skills under the watchful eyes of veteran fire bosses.

After the perimeter of the designated burn area had been mowed and wetted down with hoses fed by portable tanks, several firefighters with drip torches began igniting the tall, dry grass at the meadow’s edge.

As the flames began to crackle and surge, Oregon Department of Forestry forest officer Tom O’Connor walked the edges of the burn, directing a team of firefighters using hoses to keep the nearby vegetation wet.

“ODF is interested in total control of this fire,” he explained.

About 3.5 acres of meadow was scheduled for burning, according to Bruce Baillie, a parks operations specialist for Benton County. The idea was to knock down some of the grass, wild carrot and Queen Anne’s lace covering the ground to free up space for plants needed by Fender’s blue and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, rare native pollinators.

“It’s prep for reseeding of nectar plants,” Baillie said. “A week to 14 days after the burn, we’re going to put some golden paintbrush and other natives in.”

The Fender’s blue, once thought to be extinct, is making a comeback around the Willamette Valley after being added to the federal Endangered Species List in 2000. The Taylor’s checkerspot is considered a likely candidate for the listing.

Periodic use of fire also keeps the meadows at Fitton Green open, Baillie added, by burning off Douglas fir and English hawthorn seedlings before they get too big and start shading out the grasses and flowers.

County parks officials have applied for state wildlife grant funds to cover the costs of habitat restoration at Fitton Green.

Altogether, 16 firefighters took part in Friday’s controlled burn. Seven wildland fire engines were on hand to make sure the blaze stayed within the prescribed boundaries, and at least one engine was scheduled to stay overnight in case of flareups.

O’Connor said ODF personnel would be keeping a close eye on the area to make sure no hotspots remained.

“We will patrol this every day till we find no smokes for three consecutive days,” he said.

The vigilance is warranted, said Chris Hunt, a division chief with the Corvallis Fire Department heading up a crew of trainees. Even though the ground was still moist from last week’s heavy rains, grass and other fine fuels dry out quickly in the summer sun.

“We still have significant fire danger now,” Hunt warned. “It’s deceptive.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald