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Crews use controlled fire to clear invasive plants at the wildlife refuge outside Gaston.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - State and federal firefighters monitor a controlled brush fire at the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday, Nov. 7.Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge has been designated as protected land for several years, but within the next year or so, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hopes to officially open it up to the public.

But there's no shortage of work to do first. For one thing, the eponymous lake is currently a shallow basin covered in grass, weeds and, notably, not water. For another, many of the plants growing wild on and around the lakebed are non-native species, such as reed canary grass and Himalayan blackberry.

Refuge officials have their own plans for filling Wapato Lake, and they will take some time to come to fruition. But they took a big step Thursday, Nov. 7, to addressing their most pressing concern: removing that invasive vegetation so that native plants can flourish in their natural habitat.

A joint state and federal team spent much of Thursday at the refuge east of Gaston for what refuge manager Larry Klimek described as a "test" or "demonstration" of a prescribed burn. Much of the undesired vegetation was already dead and brown after they had been treated with herbicide, leaving them dried out and ready to be destroyed.

Workers from the Oregon Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took blowtorches to the east slope of a section of the earthen levy that forms a partial ring around the lakebed.

"Long-term, this is part of getting ready to get it opened up," Klimek explained.

Check out more photos taken by photographer Christopher Oertell on Nov. 7, 2019, at the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Fire crews burned away brambles, weeds and brush in two areas. With dry and breezy conditions and temperatures well into the 60s, they kept a watchful eye on the flames to ensure they didn't spread out of control.

Klimek said "burn boss" Jeremiah Maghan with the Fish & Wildlife Service deemed the operation a success, although he noted that late in the day, with the wind dying down and temperatures dropping, crews found it more difficult to burn away the vegetation. The earlier conditions were close to ideal.

"They cleaned it up really nice. We were impressed with it when we were all done," Klimek said.

He added, "Based upon what we did see, we did feel like it is going to be a tool and a technique that we are going to look to expand on later in the winter."PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - A channel separates the levy, at right, that surrounds much of Wapato Lake from the lakebed, at left, which is dry for much of the year.

There are about 5 miles of levy around Wapato Lake. Klimek envisions that once the refuge opens to the public — he's targeting sometime next fall — there will be a trail forming a circuit around the lake, which will be filled with water year-round.

Wapato Lake is a historically and culturally significant site in modern-day Washington and Yamhill counties. Before the Oregon Trail brought settlers to the Tualatin Valley, the lake was the wintering ground for the Atfalati people. The fertile, marshy lowland at the foot of the Chehalem Mountains was an ideal habitat for staple foods like camas and starchy, potato-like wapato, which gave the lake its name.

The Atfalati wanted to remain at Wapato Lake as settlers arrived, as the area was important to their way of life and it wasn't seen as desirable by those arriving on the Oregon Trail. But the federal government interceded, and along with the rest of the Kalapuya Indians, the Atfalati were forcibly relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation.

In the decades that followed, Wapato Lake was eventually drained and diked. Like the Cipole area near the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge outside Sherwood, from which the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge today is administered, it was converted for onion farming.

By the turn of the millennium, though, the onion business at Wapato Lake was all but over. The farmland was sold to the federal government, which established the refuge in 2013.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - State and federal firefighters were cautious as they deliberately set dead grass and brush on fire during a demonstration burn at the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday, Nov. 7.Now, the slow and steady process of preparing the refuge to be opened is finally accelerating. Klimek said he wants to have more prescribed burns this winter to finish clearing the levy of non-native plants, and then next year, engineers will carry out a plan to keep the lake from drying up.

Wapato Lake typically fills with water during the winter. In most years, the levy keeps the Tualatin River from flowing into the lakebed. But Klimek said a pumping station at the refuge can be used to keep the water level more or less steady throughout the year. It won't be a deep lake, by any means — much of it will be just a foot to a foot and a half deep, Klimek said, although the channels between the lakebed and the levy are cut several feet deeper — but it will be a year-round lake.

Already, Wapato Lake is a seasonal destination for ducks, geese and swans. Harriers and kingfishers hunt in nearby Wapato Creek and the Tualatin River, as well as in the wetlands that stretch from near Yamhill all the way to south Forest Grove when they flood.

"We're hoping to hold even more waterfowl," said Natalie Balkam, a habitat restoration specialist who is part of the Friends of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.

Balkam knows Wapato Lake better than just about anyone, Klimek said. She spent much of the summer at the refuge, working to prepare it for the final stretch from here to opening day sometime in late 2020.

"We're starting to have some wapato grow," Balkam said.

The prescribed burning on the levy isn't just restoring Wapato Lake by clearing out invasive plants. It's also returning the land itself to its Atfalati roots. Before the Oregon Trail transformed the region and forced the Kalapuya people from their ancestral lands, large-scale field burns were commonplace. The fires were a form of renewal, clearing away grasses, weeds and brush and leaving the land ready to be replanted. Camas, one of the Kalapuya Indians' main sources of food, is one of several native plant species that thrives after fire.

"Historically, a lot of the Willamette Valley was burned, and it hasn't been burned in a long time, so it allows a lot more weeds to grow," Balkam said.

Those deliberately set fires are not a major part of modern-day land management, Balkam noted — but they are being used to help bring back Wapato Lake.PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Burn boss Jeremiah Maghan of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, second from left, leads a briefing Thursday, Nov. 7, before a pair of prescribed burns at the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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