The nine forest specialists had expected to drive into the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest on a kind of a rescue mission. They never made it that Monday morning in August. Instead, they had to watch as wildfire swept through the very woods they hoped to save with their research.

The Rail Fire raged for days – the kind of wildfire that forest officials warned would happen without an aggressive effort to thin trees and clear forest deadfall. Now, a month later, crews are close to corralling the fire after it scorched more than 41,000 acres in the basin of the South Fork Burnt River west of Unity.

As the fire burns out over the coming weeks, U.S. Forest Service officials must recast the months of work that went into designing the Rail Project rescue. A recent tour of the cooled portions of the big fire offer a stark picture of what it might have been accomplished.

Portions of the forest basin had been thinned earlier in two projects that began six years ago. In those areas, the wildfire burned as nature intended – slowly creeping, on the ground, killing surplus brush but sparing the big Ponderosa pines and larch, or tamarack.

And then there were areas left untouched by humans for years — lodgepole thickets, choked with dense stands of dead and dying trees. A beetle infestation struck the territory hard, leaving mile after mile of lifeless timber. In these stands, the Rail fire spread rapidly and intensely. It killed everything in its path, leaving behind blackened tree trunks, brush skeletons and a carpet of gray and black ash.