Rural fire districts in Curry County will likely not be able to extend fire seasons beyond those set by Coos Forest Protective Association without embarking on a cumbersome permitting system for people who wish to burn.
County commissioners mulled this dilemma over in a workshop Wednesday afternoon to address the fire season after Coos Forest Protective Association (CFPA) lifted the ban Oct. 26, 2018 — and the next day, a South Coast Lumber slash pile fire reignited in high, dry Chetco Effect winds. It eventually burned 80 acres and threatened the Cape Ferrelo neighborhood.
“Three days prior, multiple agencies told us to be ready for a Chetco Effect,” said Cape Ferrelo Fire Chief Aaron Johnson. “It could have been mitigated. It’s large entities and logging companies. I think that’s where this problem lied. We knew the Chetco Effect was coming and no one said something to anyone about the fires that were burning. We have no control over entities that do the large piles.”
Weather to blame
Because no one can control the weather, it will be up to individual residents to do as much as they can to protect their property from wildfire. A major issue is that homes are intermingled in the forest, in the “urban-wildland interface” and wildfires can quickly spread to burn neighborhoods.
“Cape Ferrelo has a special microclimate,” noted Commissioner Sue Gold, who lives in the area. “It’s got steep, overgrown hillsides, unique wind patterns and the worst Sudden Oak Death problem in the county. There’s locked gates on the roads to South Coast Lumber, overgrown driveways ....”
Johnson agreed, saying some properties are virtually impossible to access with fire apparatus.
“I don’t think Coos Forest has done a bad job, it just needs a unique approach so the season can be carried on or locked down for a period of time,” he said. “In my district, I think it should’ve been pushed back a little further. Slash fires can be blown out (of control) in a heartbeat.”
Commissioners agreed they’d like to allow fire districts to extend fire bans, particularly in the fall when conditions are dry, seasonal rains have yet to hit and thunderstorms are common.
A major issue, however, is that neighborhoods are intermingled with private tracts of timberland where slash piles are typically burned after harvest — at the end of summer.
Mike Robison, district manager for CFPA said in 1993, the fire season ended Oct. 11 and was followed by pouring rain Oct. 15.
“South Coast Lumber started burning piles,” he said. “And on October 17, the rain quit. Oct. 24, all the slash burns came to life — it ended up costing $1.4 million. It’s not an uncommon thing.”
The agency uses various tracking and modeling systems when determining when to declare the fire season over, Robison explained.
The National Fire Danger Rating System provides officials with indices for fire danger and another alerts them when restrictions might need to be put on logging companies. They also watch the weather over the ocean and wait for storm tracks to line up before ending the fire ban.
A typical fire season lasts 110 days, Robison said. But last year, it was 141 days long.
“Modeling is a useful tool, but it’s not an exact science,” he said. “I don’t think we took fire season off too soon.”
Others noted timber slash burns are conducted under strict criteria, including that they have to be watched over by an attendant.
County Attorney John Huttl noted the decision likely doesn’t lie with the board anyway.
“We don’t need an ordinance,” he said. “CFPA handles forest lands, fire districts are their own districts and cities. The county regulates burn permits in any area that aren’t covered by any one of those three. I haven’t found any properties in the county that aren’t covered by CFPA, local fire or municipal districts, so our commissioners don’t play a role.”
He said he thought local districts are allowed to self-govern.
“They can have a fire prevention plan for burn permits, like Harbor,” Robison said. “If you have a plan, you must enforce and administer it. You don’t need county ordinances.”
According to Gold, the county code enforcement officer suggested implementing fire prevention programs that incorporate defensible space, allowing other fire agencies to have input to CFPA when the fire ban is to be lifted and have each district adopt its own outdoor burning policy.
“Fire prevention and education is way higher on the need level than putting more rules and laws into effect,” Robison said.
Deputy State Fire Marshal Jeff Henderson said much of the discussion surrounds state law.
“If you’re going to create something new, I don’t see that happening,” he said. “If you can manage under something that already exists, that can happen. We have this problem throughout many agencies. When you look at the cost, it’s a lot more justified to follow Coos Forest guidance on when it’s fire season and when it’s not.”
The cost of permitting — and the manpower involved to ensure an applicant will burn safely — is another hurdle that would face rural fire districts that are primarily run by volunteers. Brookings Fire Chief Jim Watson said people often pull a burn permit and keep it for future years.
“And (the county has) only one code enforcement officer, part-time,” he said. “We still have fire districts we have to take care of. I don’t see the little fire districts running around and doing fire permits. I don’t know if it would work. You’ll get a flood of people wanting permits and not being sure where they are and what they’re doing. It’s not a viable option.”