Curry County Commissioner Court Boice’s proposed resolution to give a vote of no confidence to the U.S. Forest Service for its alleged mishandling of the Chetco Bar Fire received its own no vote in a regular commissioner meeting Wednesday.
The board eventually decided to bring the resolution to a Jan. 10 workshop to rewrite it to reflect the county’s willingness to work with the federal agency to change policy at the local level to prevent another catastrophic wildfire.
The fire was spotted July 12 burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and by mid-October had burned 191,125 acres of forest, six homes and several outbuildings at a cost of $77 million.
Citizens and public officials agreed to keep pointed fingers to themselves for the duration of the event but many said they believe the forest service was negligent in not extinguishing the fire when it was less than a half-acre in size.
“The forest service is 0-3 on fires here,” Boice said. “The Chetco Bar Fire, the Silver, the Biscuit. One half of the Rogue River/Siskiyou National Forest has burned in the past 15 years.”
Boice’s resolution says unmanaged, overgrown brush in the forest increases the odds of a fire becoming extreme, and the forest service’s past management and initial fire attacks were to blame for Curry County’s three major wildfires in 15 years.
The document reads that continued mismanagement presents a threat to the health, safety, property and welfare of the county’s citizens and long-term damage to the environment, wildlife and ecosystems “can no long be tolerated.”
The resolution says the county has no confidence in the professional ability of the upper and middle management of the Forest Service’s regional districts — and even calls for the firing of all those responsible for the fire, including Gold Beach District Ranger Tina Lanier.
The part of the resolution that received the most disparaging remarks from the audience, however, says the board will ban organizations from working with the federal agency — a paragraph that concerned nonprofit organizations.
Now that the fire is extinguished, citizens and public officials are trying to figure out why the fire blew to such catastrophic level and how future fires can be prevented.
Boice said the Forest Service never intended to suppress the fire when it was small, as was apparent when they established containment lines six miles around the wildfire.
Forest Service personnel said from the start, however, that the fire was burning in such steep and dangerous terrain they dare not risk firefighters’ lives by sending them in. And the fire was burning so hot and fast, the only areas from which it could be tackled were along roads created during past wildfires, many of which were farther from the edge of the fire.
“That six-mile radius led everyone to believe they were just going to let it burn,” Boice said. “No chainsaws, no helicopters. They are radical environmentalists.”
Tim Palmer, representing the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society, said the resolution was “misinformed, inappropriate and ineffective,” and its result would be ineffective and illegal.
He said the fire got so big because of drought, high temperatures and wind, not policy decisions.
“If past forest management were to blame, a leading cause for intensified fires would be past clearcutting of relatively fire-resistant old-growth forests and replacing them with thickets of second-growth that burns like gasoline,” he said. “The recent fires also document the extensive degree the forest service sought to control the fires, and they also reveal the extreme demands on the agency at the time.”
He said it is inappropriate for county officials to address decisions that fall in the realm of the federal agency.
“Please stick to your real jobs,” he said. “You three public servants have enough to do managing our county.”
He also said the resolution would be illegal, because commissioners cannot ban organizations from working with the federal agency.
“This proposed overreach of government power — right here in Curry County — is a bit disturbing, to say the least,” he said.
He suggested the county address problems through land use planning, codes and zoning and encourage residents to do fire mitigation on their property.
Some citizens in the audience agreed with Boice’s premise but questioned his approach.
“I agree the Chetco Bar fire was devastating,” said Curry County resident Jan Barbas. “But this resolution is incredibly broad. I think it’s way over-reaching and ill-considered. To block people from working with the forest service? ‘Those with no fiduciary duty’? I just don’t know what that means. This needs significant further investigation and work.”
Interim County Administrator John Hitt said he thought there were three procedural problems with the resolution, including demands of top Forest Service officials to change policy and fire people, and blocking nonprofits and other agencies from working with the agency.
“I’m a little concerned it will impede our work,” agreed Kelly Timchak of the Lower Rogue Watershed Council. “It could affect the economic well-being of the county in general.”
Dave Lacey of Hunter Creek noted that so-called fire borrowing — the act of taking federal fire-prevention money and spending it to fight fires — is the root of the problem and can only be addressed at the federal level.
“I do believe it was too dangerous,” he said of putting firefighters in harm’s way. “I do not believe it was a ‘let it burn’ policy — they do not want to lose any more firefighters. And that fire, when it’s wind-driven like it was, there’s no way you’re going to stop it.”
Steve Beyerlin of Curry County said he supports the concept, but the resolution misses the point.
“There was a new forest service superintendent; she didn’t have a clue,” he said. “She opted to save salamanders and snails rather than the residents and forests of Curry County. She was clueless; she wishes she knew then what she knows now.
“And you are responsible for the safety of the county,” he told commissioners. “If you don’t take a role, you’re dodging your job. This behavior has got to stop.”
Jeri Lynn Thompson, whose family’s home was lost in the fire, again expressed her anger at the forest service and those to whom they contracted work. She fought the fire to save her daughter’s house while fire trucks sat at the curve on the road below and offered no assistance, she said.
Commissioner Sue Gold wondered if there is a way to get more local input with the Forest Service when such a situation arises again, or if a forest plan can be developed that reflects the unique backcountry of Curry County.
“I hate to cut them off and say, ‘You’re outta here,’ rather than work with them,” she said.
Boice said he would prefer firefighting duties be left to the state Department of Forestry.
“To say there was aggressive action to take this fire out — absolutely not,” he said. “Oregon has a tremendous record of putting out fires. And that 6-mile radius demonstrated to me they had no intention of putting that fire out. It could’ve been stopped. We can’t give them a fourth shot at putting another fire out.
“I want to send them the message that we’re not going to stand by.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at email@example.com.