Meetings were called late last week to deal with a public fed up with breathing wildfire smoke from multiple fires in southern Oregon and around the West.
AGNESS, Ore. — Forest Service officials spent more than an hour explaining how the Chetco Bar fire went from the size of someone’s backyard to a conflagration that was bearing down on the town of Brookings within five weeks.
“Point blank, the Forest Service does not have a let-it-burn policy,” Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Ross McWhorter indignantly answered one of about 20 people at the Agness RV Park next to the lower Rogue River. “Does that answer your question? Our goal was full suppression.”
Four such meetings were called late last week to deal with a public fed up with breathing wildfire smoke from multiple fires in southern Oregon and around the West, and to respond to previous meetings where politicians and citizens called for drastic changes in forest management and fire policies. Across the U.S., 8.5 million acres have burned this fire season, including 16 percent of Rogue River-Siskiyou’s 1.8 million acres.
Fire officials explained that steep terrain and extreme danger in fighting the earlier stages of the Chetco Bar fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness kept them from snuffing it when it was less than an acre in mid-July.
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Then when “Chetco Effect” winds started blowing toward the coast on Aug. 15, the fire went on a five-day rampage, doubling in size and overwhelming all planning and efforts.
The Chetco Bar fire has now burned 300 square miles and cost more than $61 million to fight. For a while it was the largest wildfire and the highest-priority forest fire in the country.
“There’s always going to be that 2 percent of fires, under extreme conditions or complex terrain, or a combination of both, that we’re never going to be successful in initial attack,” said John Prendergast, National Incident Management Organization safety officer.
Curry County Commissioner Court Boice said that something needs to change.
“I don’t know how much more wildfire we can handle,” Boice said. “We’re losing our timber and our watersheds.”
Someone asked if the agency has learned anything from catastrophic fires, such as the Biscuit fire in 2002, which overlapped the Chetco Bar footprint and was more than twice as big.
“What we’ve learned has been offset by climate change and lots of fuel buildup, and we have more severe fire than ever before,” said Craig Trulock, deputy forest supervisor.
Trulock said after around the 1940s, annual wildfire acreage in the Siskiyou dropped from around 21,000 to 4,000 because of more aggressive suppression, allowing fuel to build up.
When asked whether environmental concerns kept firefighters from doing everything they could inside a wilderness area, McWhorter said they threw everything available at the fire other than bulldozers — because they had no way to get them there.
It all started with lightning storms on June 24 and 25.
It was another 18 days before a commercial-airline pilot noticed smoke near the Chetco River at 2:43 p.m. July 12. McWhorter said that within 15 minutes firefighters were summoned.
The first day, four members of the Siskiyou Rappelers began working on a landing zone for a helicopter, known as a helispot, critical for safety and for bringing in firefighters. Helicopters dumped water on the fire.
Firefighters described how hard it was to walk on steep slopes with brush and slick madrona leaves. Snags from the old Biscuit fire posed extreme danger of falling on firefighters.
Monty Edwards, fire management officer based at the Wild Rivers Ranger District in Cave Junction, showed photos on Day 1 and Day 2 of “rollout” fires, where burning material caused spot fires downhill. Any benefit from water dumps was offset by those dumps knocking more fire down the steep hillside.
Many Douglas fir trees more than 3 feet in diameter also were starting to burn.
He decided against sending in two 20-person teams because of the safety concerns. Another group of rappelers made the same decision. At 4:38 p.m. on that first day, all firefighting was called off. There was no way to safely get close to the fire, so an indirect strategy was adopted.
Had firefighters been sent in and someone been badly hurt, “It would be difficult to look a parent in the face later and justify that decision,” said Virginia Gibbons, forest spokeswoman.
The fire didn’t grow much for a few weeks, but the Chetco Effect winds began on Aug. 15, and three days later the wildfire was up to 8,500 acres. On Aug. 20the blaze advanced 6 miles and blew up to near 100,000 acres, doubling its size.
Prendergast said all firefighters had to pull back.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if that fire line was 1,000 feet wide, nothing was going to stop the fire that day,” he said.
The meeting in Agness was mostly civil. A crowd of about 200 people at Brookings on Thursday night proved more confrontational, Gibbons said.
“The people who stood up in Brookings lost homes; they suffered loss,” Gibbons said. “It was an important first step in the healing process.”
Afterward, Ed Weiseth, of Agness, said he thought fire officials explained themselves well, but hoped for a better outcome next time.
“I think it was a professional approach to a complex problem,” he said. “I hope whatever the critique is, we can do better with our initial attack, hit the fires with overwhelming force.”
Bill Scherbarth, fire chief in Agness, wasn’t impressed.
“They didn’t do enough right off the bat,” he said. “Granted, they couldn’t put crews in there, but if you put enough water on it, eventually it’s going to wash (the fire) out.”
But fire officials were adamant that without ground crews, dropping water and retardant from aircraft wouldn’t have been enough.