A wildfire anywhere in this region would be of grave concern. It would easily spread given the recent extreme high temperatures that have left forest land dry.
But if a wildfire were to start in or spread to the Mill Creek watershed in the Blue Mountains it would be far, far worse — it would be a disaster that would linger throughout the Walla Walla Valley for well over a year.
The Mill Creek watershed is the source of the city of Walla Walla’s drinking water.
In the past, when fire has threatened the watershed, city officials estimated that a fire would leave 90 percent of the city’s drinking water unusable for at least a year or longer due to excessive silt from erosion.
And this would force the city to use well water, which would take a huge toll on the aquifer.
Given that, it is extremely wise the city of Walla Walla is partnering with the Umatilla National Forest to reduce debris in and around the watershed that would fuel wildfires.
The partnership will result in prescribed burning of 556 acres over the next three to five years, with 270 acres anticipated to be completed this fall, according to a city news release.
The Tiger Creek Prescribed Fire Project will protect the watershed by using controlled fire to reduce excessive fuel buildup along the southwest portion of the watershed boundary, which is approximately 13 miles east of Walla Walla. Doing this will also improve forage habitat for big game and restore the area to a more fire-adapted ecosystem, which reduces the risk of a wildfire that causes significant tree destruction, according to the release.
The first prescribed burn will be in September or October.
This cooperative effort is critical to prevent a worst-case scenario to our drinking water.
In 2014, the possibility of fire making the city’s water undrinkable was very real.
The Blue Creek Fire, which was so large it drew national attention, nearly made it to the watershed. More than 1,000 firefighters and support staff flooded into Walla Walla to battle the blaze.
Two years later, in 2016, tree-and-brush-reduction crews, contracted through the state Department of Natural Resources, reduced timber and other natural combustible material in the city’s watershed.
Every action to reduce the fire danger should be applauded.
The fuel reduction that will start this fall and continue for the next three to five years might be worthy of a standing ovation if it prevents a fire at the watershed.
Saving forests, of course, is important to local residents and the ecosystem, but the impact of this preventative action on Walla Walla water supply and its aquifer are critical to our future.