This week, parts of Cooper Mountain Nature Park will be set on fire – in the name of nature.
The controlled burn, scheduled to start as early as Sept. 27, is meant to reduce the risk of wildfire and keep the hilltop prairies and surrounding natural areas healthy.
Through a collaboration between the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue and Metro, officials will oversee a burn in the Beaverton-area nature park as part of the park’s management plan.
Metro natural resources scientist Curt Zonick said the burns, which have been conducted for almost 20 years, help control prairie grasses that start to smother out native wildflowers.
“Wildflowers are really important because that’s what attracts all the bugs, and bugs are the base of the food chain,” Zonick said. “The diversity of the prairie all starts with the wildflowers.”
The fire is expected to help restore some of the native plants by eliminating invasive plants. Zonick says that without periodically disturbing the prairie, the park simply turns into a grass field.
“In addition to managing fuels, the burn creates a perfect bed for adding seeds, so we’ll be following up with a native seeding,” Zonick said. “A lot of what will be greening up over the six months after the burn will be new native plants that we’ve planted and seeded. So by next spring, you won’t even know it was burned.”
The park will close for three to four days to ensure maximum safety for surrounding neighborhoods near the controlled fire.
“There are always dangers when fire is involved,” Zonick said. “We’ve never had a fire escape the project area, but we are prepared for that in case one ever did.”
For Metro, the local parks district and the fire department, the prescribed burn is used as a learning opportunity and practice for any future situations.
“Anytime we have a prescription, or a restoration of this size, we use it as an opportunity to educate our public,” said Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District ranger Scott Wagner. “With each burn, we’re learning something new. Each time we’re getting better and more efficient.”
Historically, prescribed burns were used by native inhabitants to manage the oak savannas in the Willamette Valley. In the last 20 years, there have been five controlled burns at Cooper Mountain.
“There isn’t necessarily a silver bullet – fire is one element that can help and enhance the area,” Wagner said. “In many ways, the Willamette Valley was formed by fires. Fires were a very important part of these systems.”