Forest Magazine Article: Who Needs Help Like This?
My name is Jerry Sorensen. My wife, Gayle, and I reside along the Illinois River at Oak Flat in the heart of Oregons Siskiyou National Forest, where we have lived for twenty-eight years. I am a logger and a fishing guide.
Oak Flat is a small community of about a dozen private properties with two year-round residents, Gayle and myself. In addition to our home, there are nine seasonal residences among the 310 acres of private land that make up Oak Flat. Oak Flat has no landline electricity, no stores, gas stations or other businesses; no postal service, paved roads or schools; and no neighbors for six miles in any direction. What Oak Flat does have is solitude, quiet, clean air and water, the beautiful Illinois River and, until the events I discuss in this account, a forest.
As a logger, I am acutely aware of forest fires. Before every summer, I prepare for the possibility of forest fires by disking a ten-foot-wide line to mineral soil along the road frontage and the dry-land field of my property. Gayle and I built our house with a fireproof metal roof. We keep the immediate landscape around our home clear of flammable materials and well watered in the summer. We do not fear fire; we respect it and plan for it, just as we do floods (a regular occurrence along the Illinois River), windstorms (most every winter) and other facts of nature. We are prepared for fire and do not expect outside help when fire does arrive.
The summer of 2002 saw many forest fires in southwestern Oregon. Several lightning-caused fires that started in July became known as the Biscuit Fire, the largest and most expensive to fight in Oregons history. This is our story of that fire and the effects that government firefighting had on our property, our immediate physical environment and our lives.
The lightning storm that ignited the Biscuit Fire arrived on July 12. According to the U.S. Forest Services Biscuit Fire Chronology, fire lookouts reported lightning strikes within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Oak Flat is immediately adjacent to this large wild area. By the morning of July 16, the Florence Fire (which became a part of the larger Biscuit Fire) was fifty acres in size, according to the Forest Services report. The Forest Service wanted to keep the Florence Fire from moving east toward Oak Flat. However, the commander on the scene decided not to engage the fire ìbased on safety considerations and probability of success.î By that evening, the Florence Fire was bigger than 600 acres and a running crown fire about to leave the wilderness boundary. The next day, the fire had doubled to 1,200 acres and crossed the Bald Mountain Road. On July 18, Florence had grown to 1,600 acres, the Forest Service reported.
The following is a chronology of events at Oak Flat during the fire just as Gayle and I experienced them.
July 19: Our first contact with government firefighting was when the Oregon Department of Forestry came to take pictures and make a map of Oak Flats structures to determine what needed to be protected from fire.
July 20: Darrell Miller, a fire coordinator, visited to tell us the government planned to stop the fire at Briggs Creek. We gave him the keys to everyones gate at Oak Flat (as the only year-round residents, we are the ad hoc caretakers of our neighbors properties).
July 21: Firefighters arrived and parked by the creek on our property. We contacted our neighbors by radiophone at their permanent residences to let them know what was happening.
July 22: Firefighters were clearing brush and working on a fire trail in Oak Flat.
July 23: Firefighters cut down brush around houses at Oak Flat (not ours, as it has no brush around it). The Forest Service gave us road passes because we refused to leave our home. Driving home from work that day, I saw fire on York Butte to the north of Oak Flat. Joey Krauss, who owns a summer home at Oak Flat, put in a sprinkler system around his cabin and generator house. As events unfolded, Krausss foresight helped save his structures.
July 24: I strengthened the fire trail around our property with a bulldozer. Firefighters arrived around 10 A.M. to continue cutting brush around houses. Other neighborsLewman, Quintaro, Maynard and Krausswere all working on their residences to prepare for the oncoming fire (none of their homes would be lost to fire thanks to their work). About 4 P.M. the fire blew up on York Butte and we saw it coming our way. Government firefighters told everyone to leave; we were told we had fifteen minutes to evacuate. I told them Gayle and I would remain. Firefighters then set backfires behind our neighbor Goldas house and in my pasture, without consulting with me or seeking my permission. The government-set backfire in my pasture burned up a $15,000 stack of lumber I had logged and milled. Firefighters then threw us two aluminum fire shelters and left.
July 25: We had been watering the grass around our house and outbuildings all the previous day and evening and continued to do so as the fire advanced toward us. At 1 A.M., a portion of our water line burned up as the fire came over the ridge. Our water line is an aboveground PVC pipe that brings water from a small creek down to our house: no line, no water. At 2 A.M., we walked down to Goldas house through the Krauss and Quintaro properties (their places were unscathed). At Goldas property, an old house, two cabins, a shed and two Quonset huts had burned. We were surprised that Goldas main house still stood.
At this point in our story, we believed Oak Flat had survived the Florence Fire with little loss. Total damage from the wildfire itself was limited to water lines that serve the Quintaro and Maynard properties and our home, plus a few small structures at Goldas property. I also lost my lumber, but that was from a government-ignited fire. We got on the radiophone to tell our neighbors that the worst was behind us: the fire had come, gone and done little damage; mopping up was all that was left to do.
Firefighters returned to Oak Flat at about 10A.M. They resumed cutting brush near the river. That afternoon, a real hot scorcher, firefighters set backfires behind our property and burned up the rest of our water line over to No Name Creek.
July 26: Firefighters resumed work while fallers cut down hazard trees. That evening, I went up the ridge to inspect the area backfired the previous day. A fire commander had told me earlier, before they quit for the day, that the line they were building to stop the backfire from coming back down the ridge to Oak Flat had been lost.
July 27: At 6 A.M., I saw the backfire had exploited the breach in the line and was creeping slowly down the ridge back toward Oak Flat. Had firefighters jumped on the backfire early that morning or the previous night, I believe it could have been controlled. I bulldozed a fire trail along the upper part of our property to try to slow the backfire down. A large crew of government firefighters arrived at 10 A.M. They held their regular safety meeting for about an hour (the normal and most effective time for firefighting is during the night or at first light, when the fire is cool). Our daughter arrived at noon with a new water tank and pipe so we could rebuild our water line. About an hour later, as the afternoon heated up, the backfire came rushing down the hillside. It burned up much of our private timber and destroyed the Huerta, Egan and Lloyd homes, as well as our newly installed water lines and tanks. Firefighters retreated to our property. A helicopter dumped water until propane tanks started exploding. Firefighters retreated along the upper logging road in the evening.
The backfire then ran south and east up the Illinois River and eventually overran the McCaleb Ranch Boy Scout Camp, burning virtually the entire length of the Illinois River from Oak Flat to the national forest boundary north of Selmaa distance of fourteen miles. In addition to the structures destroyed at Oak Flat, the backfire wiped out private timber holdings along the way and thousands of acres of national forest.
July 28: A new government fire crew arrived in the morning. They worked mopping up the backfire. That evening, the crew leader came to our house and asked us to make the rounds that night to check for hot spots and flare-ups. We did so every hour throughout the night. There was still quite a bit of fire smoldering at Oak Flat.
July 29: We finished plumbing our water line and holding tank. We saw one firefighter that day. We spent the day cutting brush around hot spots in the neighborhood. We had a big flare-up by the creek that I put out with our newly available water.
July 30: Government firefighters came by to take pictures and inspect.
July 31: A government crew arrived to clear the Illinois River Road and mop up around private homes.
August 3: A small crew arrived and inspected all of the private property. Although the entire Biscuit Fire would not be declared contained until September 5, fires and firefighting activities would no longer directly affect us.
Although I am no forest ecologist, as a logger and lifelong resident of the Siskiyou Mountains (Gayle and I grew up in Grants Pass, Oregon), I know a thing or two about these forests. Fire is a fact of life in the forests of southwest Oregon. If the Forest Service is going to continue fighting forest fires, it needs a comprehensive plan to do so. The plan must be well thought-out, involve the people it is going to affect, examine alternatives and tell the public the plans consequences.
In my opinion, a sensible plan would allow some fires to burn in the spring and after the first fall rains so that our forests are naturally thinned and brush is kept down. During these moist seasons, fires are controllable and, where appropriate, can be allowed to burn naturally. To the best of my knowledge, the Forest Service has never allowed a fire to burn naturally in the Siskiyous forests. The agencys history of stamping out every fire, with no consideration paid to fires positive, thinning benefits, helped to create the uncontrollable situation of last summer.
A sensible plan would have enough initial attack firefighters, such as smokejumpers, available during the driest summer months so that fires that start can be promptly extinguished. If you dont immediately attack fires during the summer drought, within minutes or hours, your chances of controlling the fire at a small size are poor. From my review of the Forest Services Biscuit Fire Chronology, its clear that the Forest Service did not have (or did not use) sufficient initial attack firefighters to put out the fire on the first day. In fact, no firefighters were assigned to extinguish the Biscuit or Florence fires for several days.
A sensible firefighting plan would commit the Forest Service to work with private landowners to prepare their homes and properties for inevitable fires. An ounce of preparationin landscaping, home design and firefighting equipment (hoses, shovels, burlap bags)can prevent a pound of damage. Being prepared will save money, lives and property.
A sensible firefighting plan would require firefighters to obtain permission in advance from private property owners before lighting backfires or taking other actions that affect private property.
A sensible firefighting plan would consider, in advance, the firefighting strategies and tactics to be used under various contingencies rather than leaving those decisions to the heat of the moment. For example, to the best of my knowledge, the Forest Service never examined or disclosed the consequences to adjacent private property owners and others of its massive use of backfires to control large forest fires. In the Biscuit Fire, backfires accounted for a large share of the total forest area burned. Backfires caused most of the damage to our property and to our neighbors at Oak Flat. Backfires incinerated the Illinois River valley for miles. The backfire ìcureî may have been worse than the wildfire ìdisease.î
A sensible firefighting plan would utilize the local knowledge and expertise of the people who live in and know these forests. Instead, the Forest Service routinely assigns firefighters from all across the country to fight fires in areas about which they know little or nothing. Many of the key firefighters who came to Oak Flat during the Biscuit Fire did not know the area, the forest or fire ecology, the roads, landmarks, topography, climate, prevailing winds or other local knowledge critical to effective firefighting.
Fire will certainly return to the Siskiyou Mountains next summer and every summer thereafter. The firefighting decisions the Forest Service has made, continues to make and will make in the future affect us, our property and the national forests we use and enjoy.