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Helitorch is hella-good

After another season of quelling lightning-caused wildfires, Southern Oregon’s federal forest managers are hoping to rain their own fire from the sky — but in a good way.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest hopes to ignite a 350-acre prescribed burn in the Applegate Watershed using a “helitorch,” which is a giant drip torch transported by helicopter to take the place of on-the-ground igniters.

A helitorch is a hella-good way to ignite brush and other woody debris in a safer, faster and more controllable way on large-scale prescribed burns — at up to one-fourth the cost of hand ignition.

But forest burn bosses have twice scrubbed planned helitorch operations on a unit near Applegate Lake, once last September because the fuels were actually too wet. Another burn planned over the second weekend in October was a no-go because of a mixture of winds and dryness.

“It just wasn’t doing the things we wanted it to do, so we didn’t want to bring the torch into it,” says the forest’s Robert Shoemaker, one of only three Forest Service helitorch managers in Oregon and Washington.

“We plan on doing it later in the year when it’s more conducive to burning,” Shoemaker says. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.”

Helitorches work similarly to hand-held drip torches, but this one is affixed to the base of a helicopter and drops flaming gel balls as the pilot maneuvers the helicopter over areas targeted for ignition.

It takes far fewer people to pull off and is excellent for work in rugged and tough-to-reach terrain — the same types of topographies that make it extremely difficult to fight wildfires.

It puts down an instantaneous line of fire, and if it does not burn in the planned pattern, another line of fire can be put down to redirect flames.

“You can actually steer your fire with a helitorch,” Shoemaker says. “It’s a really good way to burn.”

The forest contracted with helitorch outfits heavily in the 1980s to burn areas after larger clearcuts, but individual prescribed fire operations generally are much smaller now. The last prescribed fire using a helitorch on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest came in 2011, but Shoemaker says the Applegate unit fit the bill this time.

“It’s a way to get in there and get a very efficient and cheaper burn,” Shoemaker says.

The forest plans prescribed burns on anywhere from 6,500 acres to 8,000 acres during the current burn season, which runs up to the start of the 2020 wildfire season, forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer says.

If the entire suite of planned acreage is burned, that will entail about 1,000 acres more than last season, Kramer says.

The plan includes about 1,800 acres of pile and underburning on Forest Service lands that are part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project within the Ashland Watershed, Kramer says.

Just how much gets done will be determined by the burn windows, in which moisture levels and wind patterns largely keep smoke from drifting into nearby cities.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

A helitorch like this one from Cal Fire is planned for use this fall in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.