Heather Marks,

Brookings

I’ve had a question I’ve heard repeated endlessly on social media this week, which was:

“Why isn’t clear, concise info about the decisions made regarding how to deal with the Chetco Bar Fire, including the early weeks, being made available?”

People are anxious, wanting answers, and some are looking for someone to blame.

Here’s some information I have gathered from various experiences or connected fire sources. It may not be new to you, but it made a lot of sense to me and helped me understand the big picture.

•Oregon is fighting a huge record number of wildfires this year;

•When the Chetco Bar Fire started, the terrain — with no evacuation routes, smoke cover, and wooded mountainsides and ravines — made it life-threatening to drop smokejumpers, even when the fire was smaller;

•Given the number of fires, both in Oregon and nationwide, when we had a smaller fire with no risk yet to structures or people, but high risk to personnel, it made sense to move those resources where they could save homes and people in immediate danger instead of having them wait around for “hopefully” changing conditions here.

Those fires, reasonably, with imminent danger to the public welfare, needed the resources more than we did. When the fire changed, and we needed them most, having a lot of fires in Oregon actually worked to our advantage: resources diverted from those areas didn’t have far to drive.

•When the Chetco Bar Fire became the nation’s top priority fire, we didn’t seem to mind too much that firemen were leaving other fires to burn in order to come save us. Those fires are growing right now, and possibly burning structures and homes, but the resources are here, where they are needed most urgently;

•This fire has been managed by several jurisdictions, meaning different teams in charge of the fire at different times. Those people might have to make different kinds of decisions, based on alternate criteria. Some of those decisions may not be made publicly available until after the post-fire investigation in order to not publicly falsely accuse people of mistakes they may not have made, or to cast blame, if there is any.

•Fires are unpredictable. Yes, the Chetco Effect is not new. But with resources always more than three days out — before number one priority status — and weather and fire predictions tentative even at three days out, it’s hard to request what you’ll need later in the week, when you “think” you know the fire will change and how. You’re betting other people’s lives, taking those resources from other fires; hoping the fire does what it’s “supposed to”;

•Different agencies all coming together to work on this fire don’t always have the same guidelines. Engines and personnel from our city fire department probably have different risk allowances than the Forest Service, and those are different from the National Guard, etc. They also have different tools at their disposal and rules about when they are and aren’t allowed to use them. So some trucks and firefighters may be required to evacuate while others can stay. Some are allowed to engage when others aren’t.

That could explain a lot of the “why weren’t they doing anything while they were supposed to be helping” questions. Maybe not all, but some;

•For some of these agencies that have been monitoring and working this fire, there isn’t a “just let it burn and do nothing” policy. It’s about determining how to fight the fire and balancing risks/rewards to structures, civilians and firefighting personnel. If those resources are needed more urgently elsewhere, they might divert them until there is a strategic opportunity to effectively engage the fire.

Last but not least

To our firefighting heroes: The information I have received so has made me more grateful for what you do. I appreciate the service, skill and chutzpah it takes to make this your living, for putting your reputations and lives on the line to save others or even a barn or a part of our forest.

To my community: As the rest of the country focuses on our community, what will people see? People helping people. People coming together. A community that donates, communicates, shares and supports firefighters and all the volunteers from so many organizations and places.

I’m so grateful to be where I am — fire or not.

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