The Curry Wildfire Prevention group wants Curry County citizens to let the U.S. Forest Service know black logs matter.
The group met again Monday night to discuss how to best get citizens to submit comment to the forest service regarding a proposed salvage harvest of 13,000 acres of land burned in the 191,125-acre Chetco Bar Fire last summer.
“This is the third major fire in 30 years,” said CWP member and former county commissioner George Rhodes. “Seventy-four percent of Curry County has been burned in these fires. We can’t afford to let this happen again. I want to insist the forest service have community input about managing resources and protecting the community.”
Private timber companies have been scrambling to cut trees on their land before they succumb to insects and then rot, typically within a year.
And the bugs are already here; some in attendance Tuesday said when it is quiet in the burn area, they can be heard munching, en masse, on the standing snags.
Just over 170,320 acres burned in the wildfire were on forest service lands, and of those, only 15 percent, or 25,386 acres are in designated areas and are proposed to be harvested. Of those, however, about 12,000 acres of trees suffered minimal damage and can’t be cut, forest service officials said in the proposal.
The remainder are designated as late-successional reserve or riparian areas and cannot be harvested unless it can be proven that their removal would be ecologically beneficial.
That leaves about 13,000 acres that can be salvaged, mostly on the edges of the burn scar and along roads.
A comment period on the proposal ends Jan. 31, and the agency hopes to make a decision by May.
Curry Wildfire Prevention (CWP) said the acreage proposed is not nearly enough.
Cam Lynn called the proposed harvest “grossly inadequate” for public safety and forest stewardship and lacks common sense.
“You have to travel very far into the burn before you get into the area marked for salvage,” said Guy McMann of Brookings. “Fuel is standing like matchsticks, and July is our next fire season. This project will just be a Band-Aid.”
Much of the challenge is because forest and fire management policy is set at the national level, and each forest is unique, the group agreed. Curry County has hundreds of years of debris accumulation on its forest floors. It abuts the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, in which little man-made interference is allowed. And now the wildfire scar is a mere 5 miles from town — the same distance the Chetco Bar Fire traveled in one day during the event.
They all agreed fire should be extinguished as soon as possible and not allowed to play out just because lightning and fire are natural occurrences in the forest ecosystem.
“This was entirely preventable, in my opinion,” said Mark Anderson, a former firefighter and forest service employee. “To let something like that creep around for nearly a month?”
Some CWP members said they want the forest service to disregard its matrix lands on which harvests can take place and approach the project more realistically.
“Different classes of land are treated differently,” said Lynn, who called the language in the proposal difficult to understand and the proposal itself a “fairy tale.” “Only one class is eligible for harvest. When the fire blew through, it didn’t discriminate on classes of land; it just blew through. The forest service shouldn’t discriminate either. If the trees need to be harvested, let’s harvest them. Right now, they’re being squandered.”
Lee Riddle of Harbor said 2 billion board feet were salvageable after the Biscuit Fire.
“The forest service cut that to 516 million,” he said. “In the end, it was 60 million, and it would have cost too much to get it. The trees rotted, and it hasn’t gotten any better.”
Other issues include backcountry roads — and their closures, which hamper firefighters’ access to wildfires; replanting the forest and reducing the fuel load in anticipation of the next fire.
“The fuel load isn’t what it used to be,” Rhodes said, noting that judges who ruled on parts of the forest plan “don’t know jack-diddly” about how to manage forests. “You can’t fight that fire. You can’t put that fire out. The wildfire policy should be changed as things change (in the forest). These fires have become unnatural. What used to be a resource is now a liability.”
Others want the forest service to consider the safety of surrounding communities, especially in light of how fast fire can travel.
Randy Gerlach said he had a friend who in 1919 lived through a fire that blazed its way through Harbor.
“He could see the fire coming, and was getting gunny sacks, wetting them and putting them on his roof,” Gerlach said, noting that by the time he had finished, the fire was on his doorstep. It eventually burned to the driftwood on the beach.
“The word ‘safety’ is mentioned one time in this proposal — once,” McMann said. “Safety is not their issue. The safety of the marbled murrelet, the safety of the Coho salmon, the safety of the spotted owl — that’s mentioned. What about citizens’ safety?”
The Pacific Northwest Forest Plan, last updated in 1996, no longer reflects what is in the forest, particularly after major wildfires — notably the Biscuit and Chetco Bar fires — have changed the face of the backcountry in the ensuing years, Rhodes said.
“It has nothing to do with the way the forest is today,” he said. “Only 2 percent of the Biscuit Fire was harvested. Our Congressmen should be ashamed they collect $174,000 paychecks and they lost $140 million worth of timber.”
Alan Vandiver, a former district ranger on the Klamath and Gold Beach/Chetco districts, said the only way to get people on the same page is to get them in the same room.
“Communities that have suffered (through this) move ahead by pulling together,” he said. “The upcoming fire season will be here before you know it. Maintain your precision focus on defense of life and property.”
He cited numerous fires in Happy Camp, California, in which all those concerned — from mill owners to environmentalists — were brought together to determine a solution.
“During these events the community was an inspiration to me,” Vandiver wrote in an email to the Pilot. “People with different viewpoints came together. They came up with all kinds of ideas for post-fire projects. This small community started outcompeting some of the bigger communities for funding. They did it because the funders saw this small community had so many partners pulling together — a fire-safe council, volunteer fire department, schools, the Karuk Tribe, Community Action, health services and on and on. Then, they had such a good track record of accomplishing projects they were able to get more funding to do good work. No matter how contentious, stick together and find solutions.
“Get some things you can agree on,” he continued. “Can we agree about defensible space? Can we agree about fire resilient forests? OK. It’s hard to argue with that. Don’t do the ‘us versus you,’ ‘we’re the good guys, you’re the bad guys.’”
They also went into the woods to see the topography and fire damage firsthand.
“Ask a hotshot — the smartest people in the fire — what makes sense or doesn’t,” Vandiver said. “You know how many stems per acre are in there and you want to put firefighters in there? How are they going to get out?”
He also suggested people provide input to the chief of the Forest Service — Rob MacWhorter is retiring soon — regarding the skills management should have for the next fire.
“It is very important you provide this input to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service,” Vandiver said. “If the people in Curry County do not provide this information, you can bet others will do it for you.
“Mother Nature and wildland fires have an uncanny ability to exploit weakness in communities and organizations,” Vandiver continued. “First and foremost, do everything you can to keep the focus on defense of life and property. Second, take a longer look at how to keep the forest resilient and healthy. The clock is ticking.”
Comments can be sent to Chetco Fire Salvage coordinator Jessie Berner, Gold Beach Ranger District, 29279 Ellensburg Ave., Gold Beach, OR 97444. Electronic comments may be submitted to: email@example.com. The subject line must contain the name of the project: Chetco Fire Salvage.