Sen. Whitsett: How Oregon is winning wildfire war

whitsett-doug-senatorBy Sen. Doug Whitsett
Oregon State Senator (Klamath Falls)

The Oregon Department of Forestry did an exceptional job of stopping the Bryant Fire in West Langell Valley. The wildfire consumed about 1,350 acres of privately owned timber and brush-covered land. The fire is now contained, completely lined, and is well on its way to being fully controlled.

The wildfire had the potential to be much worse than it was because it burned on very steep terrain, under extremely dry and windy conditions. In fact, there are virtually no natural barriers that would have impeded the spread of the fire for nearly forty miles, between its locations southeast of Bonanza and the west end of Stukel Mountain.

The Department responded with five air tankers, eight helicopters, several dozers and pumpers as well as nearly 500 firefighters, within the first 24 hours. They knocked the fire down and built fire lines around it, in spite of very dry conditions, high winds, and treacherously steep hillsides. At the peak of their efforts more than 850 firefighters were engaged in the attack.

Landowners pay the Department of Forestry an annual per acre assessment to protect their forest land by fighting fires that burn on their property or threaten their timber resources.

The Department successfully implemented their new motto that “every acre counts”. They primarily employed direct attack firefighting by getting in close and stopping the fire at its natural edges. They minimized the number of private forest acres burned by employing burn-out fires and backfires only when absolutely necessary.

Their communications with landowners, and the community of Bonanza were exceptional. They ask for and used community knowledge of the area to determine points of access and the availability of water. They were in constant contact with landowners and the local community explaining their plan of attack, why it needed to be done and how they intended to do it.

Virtually no natural sources of water were available for the fire fighters because of the extreme drought conditions. Local ranchers pumped groundwater into reservoirs and canals for helicopters and pumpers to use on the fire. In fact, one of the wells used extensively in the air attack effort is an irrigation drought well that the Oregon Department of Water Resources had initially told the owner he could not use this summer.

The fire camp at the Bonanza School held more than 850 firefighters at the peak of the suppression effort. The Department’s mobile kitchens were preparing and serving more than 2,500 meals per day. In spite of all the activity, the school grounds were well ordered and kept immaculately clean.

The Department’s entire fire-fighting operation on the Bryant Fire has been both professional and very effective.

It has not always been that way!

In my opinion, the fire-fighting effort two years ago on the Berry Point Fire near Lakeview was neither professional nor effective. The fire was under the management of professional US Forest Service fire teams. The Oregon Department of Forestry was at best ineffective in asserting their fire management goals and direct attack techniques.

That wildfire burned more than 90,000 acres. It burned out of control for eleven days, destroying more than 30,000 acres of privately owned forestland.

Backfires and burn-outs were employed so frequently that tens of thousands of acres of forests were needlessly destroyed.

Many of the fires set by the fire fighters pointlessly incinerated private forested land. Several of those backfires never reached the edges of the original fire. Others threatened homes and ranches. Most egregiously, more than one of the backfires threatened the lives of landowners fighting to save their own property.

Effective communications with landowners and the Lakeview community were virtually non-existent. Fire crews were given inadequate directions, virtually worthless maps and too often left large sections of the fire lines unmanned.

Landowners who tried to help were ignored and shunned. Their property was not protected and too often incinerated by indirect firefighting efforts.

Even professional fire fighters were stunned at the near total lack of effective fire management.

For the past two years we have continued to work to correct that travesty. Several landowner meetings were held in Lakeview. The meetings were attended by Oregon Department of Forestry and US Forest Service Regional Directors and their fire staffs. They were told of their failures, face to face, with the folks whose forest they failed to protect and whose lives they needlessly endangered.

We held a total of three contentious and adversarial legislative hearings in the Capitol. One of those hearings lasted nearly six hours. We asked tough question and demanded straight forward answers.

Those hearings led a two day meeting of statewide forestland owners, professional fire fighters, and agency employees, held in Bend after the 2013 fire season. The conversations were candid. The focus was on finding solutions.

To his credit, Oregon State Forester Doug Decker listened, and understood the issues and the public anger. He is taking a number of actions that we all hope will prevent another Berry Point.

Interagency contracts are being amended. Interagency agreements are being clarified. A new culture was developed that “every acre counts” in Oregon. The federal forest managers’ “let it burn” polices will no longer be tolerated.

The Department’s clear message now is to protect every acre of privately owned protected land. The focus is to “put the fire out first”, and to ask questions and deal with related issues after the fire is no longer a threat.

We are also working together to create a source of funding to help private landowners rehabilitate the forests for damage caused by fire-fighting activities. The most effective time to repair that damage is soon after the fire is over. Funds must be available to do that work.

The cost of reforesting east-side forests after a wildfire often exceeds the salvage value of the burned timber. We are working to create another fund to help with the costs of replanting those devastated forest lands.

2013 was a very bad year for wildfires. More acres were lost to wildfires than any other year for several decades.

Nevertheless, the Oregon Department of Forestry has made huge improvements in their efforts to protect private forest lands. Forest owners have been quick to complement that progress.

Severe drought conditions, coupled with the near complete lack of federal forest management, may cause this year to be the worst year ever for Oregon wildfires. The Department of Forestry has already responded to two major fires that incinerated a total of more than 7,500 acres.

By all accounts, their fire suppression efforts have been exceptional on both fires. At this point, we couldn’t be more pleased with our efforts to restructure Oregon’s wildfire protection services, nor could we be more pleased with the fire suppression work of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

We can never undo the damage caused at Berry Point.

That scar will haunt the people of Lake County for at least the next two generations. However, that fire has become the rallying cry for better forest management and for more effective fire control efforts.

We must keep that momentum moving forward.

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