Curry County won’t be demanding a federal investigation into how last summer’s Chetco Bar Fire got out of control so quickly after commissioners Sue Gold and Tom Huxley demanded verification of many of the figures given in fire reports first.
Commissioner Court Boice has been trying to get approval for an investigation because many citizens believe the U.S. Forest Service was negligent in how it addressed the fire in its early stages.
The lightning-caused wildfire was discovered July 15 when it was about 5 acres in size. Steep terrain prevented firefighters from accessing the area, and much of the time was spent building firelines to block the fire from progressing.
But Chetco Effect winds blew into the county Aug. 17, when the fire was at 6,011 acres, and by Aug. 20, it had burned almost 50,000 acres. It eventually destroyed 191,125 acres, some 11 structures and forced the evacuation of thousands of people.
The fire was eventually extinguished by seasonal rains in October.
And then the blame-game began.
Show the numbers
Commissioners, however, have been slow to act regarding questions to the forest service, despite Boice’s prodding.
Gold said during a commissioner meeting last week, for example, she wasn’t confident in a number quoted in the proposed letter requesting a federal investigation that 80 percent of the Chetco River watershed was “lost.”
“I’m not sure where that came from,” she said.
“Gary Milliman and the BAER report,” Boice responded, naming the Brookings city manager at a recovery team’s analysis of damage done.
“And half of the redwoods? I think there are others, in the Winchuck,” she said.
“If you look at the total burn and the amount of redwoods lost, it’s really close,” Boice said. “This is part of the reason we need an investigation. We don’t know if we’re getting the right information. We have to rely on their information. We know we lost ancient old trees — shall we amend the letter to say ‘an unacceptable number’?”
“Yes,” Gold said.
Interim County Administrator John Hitt said he would review the numbers and present them at a May 2 meeting — but then he unexpectedly resigned Thursday.
Huxley agreed with Gold, saying he wasn’t confident in the numbers presented, and Gold suggested they table the matter again.
“No,” Boice said. “If we can’t make a decision today — the paralysis never stops. Why don’t we sit right down today and do this?”
Gold and Huxley then suggested removing all the figures and asking for an investigation, to which Boice said that reduces the credibility of the letter. He expressed his concern that the next wildfire will burn Brookings down.
“Would you do your job to bring proper attention to this?” he demanded. “Why do we want to shut down a debate of this magnitude?”
Gold said emotions were running too high, and he suggested she talk to the people who lost thousands of acres of land.
Boice also tried again to bring up his proposal to bring wild mustang horses into the backcountry to eat brush and reduce the fire danger.
Many citizens — long-time residents, hunters and property owners — told commissioners when Boice initially brought up the topic that horses would never survive in such dense, steep terrain.
“The evidence just keeps building,” Boice said. “This is a potential for Curry County. If we’d gotten together several months ago, they’d be delivering horses to us right now.”
He said he is frustrated, too, as Wallowa County is trying to reinstate grizzly bears, and wolves are back in Jackson County.
“They’ll let grizzlies come to the wilderness, wolves come here; it’s an embarrassment,” Boice said. “This is common sense. Horses are an answer.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .