Aftermath of the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire

Commissioners hit Forest Service with vote of "no confidence," but they stand alone

By Curtis Hayden

Originally published in Sneak Preview on March 1, 2018 (Grants Pass and Medford) and April 1 (Ashland)

The timing was impeccable. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were visited by some friends from Portland, Tom and Laura, and when I mentioned that I was writing a story about the Josephine County commissioners and their vote of no-confidence in the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to handle catastrophic forest fires, Tom went out to his car and returned with a book he was reading, Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn.

I figured the book was about the Tillamook Fire of 1933 because I’d heard a lot about that Mother of All Fires over the years.

“The Tillamook Fire was nothing,” Tom said. “It only burned 300,000 acres. This book is about the fire that took place in northern Idaho, Montana and Washington in 1910, which burned over three million acres.”

And so I read the book, which was also a history of the U.S. Forest Service that was created by Teddy Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress in 1905. Along with Gifford Pinchot and other visionaries, an effort was made to retain millions of acres of federal forest land for future generations. Today, the system includes 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and 20 research and experimental forests, all covering over 191 million acres of public land.

The robber barons, of course, had other ideas for the forests (i.e, no stoppin’, just choppin’), and by 1910, when William Howard Taft was president, the Forest Service was vastly underfunded and underserved. In the Coeur d’Alene area of northern Idaho, a small group of rangers had to contend with some unsettling conditions—a long, dry, hot summer, severe lightning strikes, and an outmanned crew that could not keep up with the fires.

 By August 20, 1910, 1,000 to 3,000 small fires were burning, and it was about to get worse. That morning, a huge wind called the Palouser roared in from the Snake River with hurricane force gales and turned the entire area into a raging inferno. Towns were engulfed, 87 firefighters died, and before it was over, there wasn’t a tree standing for a hundred miles.

It was a huge wake-up call for the nation and Congress, and it was enough to convince Teddy Roosevelt to stand against his chosen successor, Taft, and hand the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson. The Forest Service, though, was reborn, and it changed its laissez-faire attitude about forest fires.

From 1910 to 1949, they built hundreds of fire lookout stations, and once a fire was spotted, they adopted the “ten o’clock rule,” in which crews were sent to hot spots immediately, with the instructions that the fire was to be out by 10:00 that night.

Unfortunately, in 1949 a crew of 15 smokejumpers “leapt from a plane into a burning mountainside in Mann Gulch, Montana, and less than two hours later all but three were dead or fatally burned.”

The Forest Service recognized that they had “1910-on-the-brain,” but according to Egan, the “10 o’clock rule would stay in effect for most of the century, until rangers who realized that fires were critical to the health of a forest started to have a voice. By trying to stop all major wildfires, the Forest Service had only fed the beast. The woods were full of dry, dying, aging timber and underbrush—fuel. Big swaths were unhealthy, in need of a cleansing burn. Even with their armies, their aerial support, their billions in taxpayer money to hold back the flames, rangers became increasingly helpless.”

In the final years of the 20th century, Jack Ward Thomas, Chief of the Forest Service, declared, “Some fires would be fought; others would be allowed to burn. Fire is neither good nor bad; it just is.” That statement, though never officially enacted as policy, led to the belief that the Forest Service was going to start letting forest fires burn out of control.

The Big, Bad Chetco Fire

Fast forward to July 12, 2017. Long, hot, dry summers with plenty of lightning strikes were the norm for a planet suffering though climate change. Catastrophic wildfires that were inevitable every 15-20 years were now expected to pop up every 4-5 years.

The U.S. Forest Service wasn’t the only organization entrusted with fighting those fires. There was the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), local county forestry departments, and private land owners. Each of those entities, in fact, contributed money every year to a fund used to control forest fires.

On July 12, a lightning strike in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness east of Brookings sparked a fire, now known as the Chetco Bar Fire. By July 15 “it was primarily burning in the scar of the 2002 Biscuit Fire and had only burned 45 acres.”

So far, so good. If the Forest Service had been applying its “ten o’clock rule,” the conflagration might have been contained, but because the fire was located in “some of the most remote and steep terrain in the country,” they let ‘er burn. By July 20, it had grown to 300 acres, and by August 2 it was 2,907 acres, and the first mandatory evacuation was put into place.

By this time, the Forest Service decided that maybe it was time to take the fire seriously, but unfortunately on August 19 the Brookings Effect wind picked up, and despite having everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it, the fire burned 191,000 acres.

The economic and health hazards of that fire are now well documented. Tourism along the Rogue River suffered hundreds of dollars in losses every day; the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had to cancel nine shows; the Britt Festival had to postpone a show; and of course, people all over the valley were exposed to three weeks of poisonous gases and carcinogens, causing a run on surgical masks and severe cases of cabin fever.

It’s commendable that the Forest Service has a philosophical mindset to let forest fires burn in order to revitalize the overall health of the ecosystem, but there comes a point where it might reach a case of overkill.

And that is exactly what was going through the heads of the Josephine County Commissioners when, on October 25, 2017, they unanimously passed Resolution No. 2017-047, “expressing no confidence in the U.S. Forest Service’s resource management.”

Specifically, they stated that the “U.S. Forest Service’s past negligent forest management and wildfire initial attack practices have been the most substantial contributing factor in causing the Chetco Bar (2017), Biscuit (2002), and Silver Creek (1987) fires.”

They then called upon the U.S. Forest Service “to outsource the practice of wildfire fighting to the Oregon Department of Forestry.”

The resolution created quite a stir in southern Oregon, as the county commissioners in both Jackson and Curry Counties refused to go along, preferring instead to work with the Forest Service as equal partners.

When I stopped by Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare’s office for an interview, he was emphatic. “Every other entity in the state entrusted with containing forest fires are on it immediately,” Hare said. “I don’t blame the local Forest Service people at all. It’s just that they have a different strategy for dealing with increasing forest density, lack of roads, and a changing climate.”

Hare also bemoaned the lack of action after the fires occurred. “Historically, we’d mitigate the fuel loads by removing the dead and dying trees and planting new ones,” he said. “They don’t do that now, and we’re three time more likely to experience fire in that same area. There are snags everywhere, and it’s chaos when another fire comes along. If they’d manage those stands, we would have a safer environment.”

The commissioners feel they have the people behind them. In 2012 they submitted an advisory question to the November ballot: “In your opinion, is the practice of forest management to produce timber revenue an appropriate funding source for County services?” The question had no mandate or course of action, but 71% of the voters said they agreed with the commissioners.

Then in 2014, another “advisory” ballot measure asked the voters if they thought the salvage of dead and dying trees damaged by wildfires was appropriate, and 89% of them said yes.

With the backing of the public, it wasn’t much of a stretch for the commissioners to proceed with their vote of no confidence. And it’s not just about the Forest Service’s failure to hop to it when that first fire was reported in the Kalmiopsis. It’s their intransigence about not letting salvage operations clean up the mess that has the commissioners seeking redress.

In Defense of the Forest Service

Repeated calls to the U.S. Forest Service went unanswered, but I did access their webpage where they stated that they are “working with partners to restore healthy, resilient, fire-adapted ecosystems.” Those practices include “thinning crowded forests and using prescribed fire on two to three million acres each year, which can help prevent the buildup of flammable vegetation that feeds extreme wildfire.”

Simon Hare thinks that is all and good but can’t understand why they don’t allow salvage operations to go in and “thin the crowded forests” to prevent the buildup of fuel.

“They seem to think salvage operation degrades the soil and removes biomass, yet there is plenty of material left behind,” Hare said. “It’s about the same as their thinning and prescribed burn operations that they think is so effective.”

Since the Forest Service was playing hard to get, I called Dominick DellaSalla of the Geos Institute, an environmental group based in Ashland. He thought that the Forest Service did everything correctly last summer, and he was disappointed that the Josephine County Commissioners tried to politicize the tragedy.

“First of all, the Forest Service does not have a policy of ‘let it burn,’” he said. “Instead, they manage wildfire for ecosystem benefits. This may mean doing light suppression in wilderness areas, corralling fire in places by directing the advancing flames around structures (where possible) and suppressing or back burning. The same fire can have multiple treatments. Very seldom does the agency just walk away from a fire. Their comprehensive fire management plan has criteria specific to the circumstances.”

According to DellaSalla, the Chetco Bar Fire began in steep and remote terrain, and unsafe for firefighters. As the fire grew in size, the Forest Service used all of the resources available to try and contain it. And because of climate change, we’re just going to have to get used to large fires every summer.

“Amazingly, a very small percentage of the Chetco Fire burned at high severity,” he said. “Most of it was confined to the ground level, which of course, produces most of the smoke.”

DellaSalla was also not happy with Sen. Alan DeBoer’s town hall meetings in Ashland and Medford last December. “He spent much of his time insinuating that the Forest Service’s non-existent ‘let burn policy’ resulted in this summer’s large wildfires,” he said. “This was clearly to bolster his proposal that incident command for all fires in Oregon should be turned over to the Oregon Department of Forestry. In reality, the Forest Service immediately fought every fire, but with firefighter safety as the highest priority.”

DellaSalla pointed out that most of the acreage burned in Oregon last summer “was in the naturally dense forests typical of high-precipitation areas of the state. Relatively little burned in pine-dominated, drier forests often publicized as needing thinning. Most of the growth in these fires occurred in single afternoons driven by high winds and did not burn ‘catastrophically’ due to a lack of management as claimed.”

Nor does DellaSalla think that salvage logging is the answer to the problem. “After wildfire, the forest is transformed into the earliest stage of forest growth that allows a completely new fire-adapted community of plants and animals to get their time in the sun,” he said. “Dead trees anchor the soils preventing erosion, provide habitat for scores of insect-eating bats and bird that keep destructive forest pests in check and shade new seedlings from intense sunlight. Soil nutrients are recycled as the forest rejuvenates quickly.”

As it stands now, the Josephine County commissioners stand alone with their no-confidence resolution, and the Forest Service, according to DellaSalla, will continue with its firefighting strategies. For the rest of us, we can only hope that a repeat of 2017 does not occur

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