Curry County commissioners approved a letter Wednesday to U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley demanding a congressional investigation into problems experienced with the Chetco Bar Fire last summer.
Many believe the U.S. Forest Service allowed the fire to burn out of control, failed to listen to locals about the extremity of the Chetco Effect winds, which blew the fire from 6,000 acres July 16 to almost 100,000 acres on July 23. Others have questioned why fire trucks sat on roadways and failed to protect nearby homes as flames licked at the property lines on Cate Road.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio told citizens in a town hall meeting last month that he and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden have requested a GAO investigation, he expects it will be honored — and that it could take up to two years to conduct.
County Commissioner Court Boice, who penned the letter months ago, noted that at this point, the letter will merely reiterate concerns Curry County residents have.
Commissioner Tom Huxley again voted against sending the letter, saying much of the letter was filled with “opinion, hearsay, conjectures, discrepancies — and not facts.”
He cited 12 items he felt should be verified or eliminated before the letter was sent, including statements the land burned is “some of the most beautiful, sacred and wildest land in the continental United States,” or that 80 percent of the Chetco River watershed was lost.
County Attorney John Huttl, however, said such a letter can include opinion and estimates to emphasize the point about the damage done.
The letter reads that “a significant portion of the land mass suffered with the severe burn category. Thousands of birds and wildlife were incinerated. According to Brookings Public Works, 80 percent of the Brookings-Harbor watershed was lost.
“Our citizens throughout Oregon suffered very hazardous smoke inhalation. Unhealthy air caused the cancellation of group and individual recreational and tourism experiences at a cost to our economy yet to be determined. We lost an unacceptable number of rare Oregon Redwoods. And the list goes on and on.
“The to-date estimated cost to the American taxpayers of $78 million from the fire is outrageous,” the letter continues.
Jan Barbas, who is running for Huxley’s county commissioner seat in the May 15 primary elections, suggested the letter merely demand answers to three specific questions.
“Could the Chetco Bar Fire have been extinguished in the first attack?” he said. “If not, was it a lack of management? Resources? Or was it really too dangerous?
“Secondly, the modeling,” Barbas continued. “They said there was a 2-in-1,000 chance this fire would blow up like this — fires were blowing up all over the West. They did all the planning and did not consider it might blow up? Why, and what are the consequences? And what happened on Cate Road?”
Boice, who attended almost all the fire briefings during the height of the fire in August and September last year, again expressed his anger that the forest service is not moving faster on getting salvage logging operations going — and that only 2.5 percent of the public lands that burned will be harvested. Initially, forest service officials were recommending the removal of 7 percent of the trees.
“We’ve been lied to,” Boice said. “I’ve been told to give them the benefit of a doubt; we can’t do that anymore. We can’t sit by and wait until the fire season is here.”
He has been unsuccessfully urging his fellow commissioners to act more quickly too, as the fire season has already begun in some Western states and nothing has been done to address fire protection in the area.
The Chetco Bar Fire, which eventually burned more than 191,000 acres, was at one point the highest priority in the nation. It burned several buildings, 16,000 acres of private timber land and about 175,000 acres of federal land, mostly belonging to the U.S. Forest Service.
It began in mid-July in the 2002 Biscuit Fire burn scar — and came within 5 miles of Brookings. Thousands were evacuated, mostly due to the heavy smoke.
And citizens have been gathering since to determine how to prevent this from happening again, with little result. U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Tina Lanier, from whom many demanded answers, has relocated to another forest to give the “community time to heal.” She plans to return in six months and retire.
And fire officials are watching the weather and understory growth in an attempt to evaluate how severe next season will be.
The National Interagency Fire Center has crafted models predicting the fire danger will be higher than usual in the Pacific Northwest again this summer, beginning in July.
“The greatest irony, however, is that the fire conditions now for 2018 are more serious than ever,” the letter concludes. “We speak for many in Southern Oregon who believe this fire was not properly confronted nor battled from the very beginning.
“It has ultimately cost Oregon dearly and in many additional ways that are too early to calculate or even understand. What our Curry County Board of Commissioners is seeking, is simply to get aid in determining the truth and the factual history regarding this awful catastrophic fire. We are asking for a full and immediate Congressional Investigation for all facts, and also retrieve any missing documents for the Chetco Bar Fire.”
Boice countered Huxley’s statement that problems like unhealthy air and a loss of tourism were conjecture.
“Where does it stop?” he said. “I got the facts. We’re going to lose our whole county if we don’t get on board here.”