Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George pledged his agency’s cooperation with local organizations and citizens when the next big wildfire starts again.
He and a handful of his crew attended last Wednesday evening’s Curry County Board of Commissioner meeting to affirm their willingness to work with local authorities and others with forest restoration, fuel reduction in the Chetco Bar and Klondike megafire burn sites, fire mitigation on private lands — and how to address the problem if another wildfire breaks out this summer.
County Commissioner Court Boice and George have been working closely together since the supervisor arrived in Curry County one month before the 175,258-acre Klondike Fire ignited near Cave Junction and made its way northwest, fueled by Chetco Effect winds.
George had the foresight to put equipment and order manpower to the area five days before lightning struck almost 100 locations in the wilderness and on U.S. Forest Service lands — an action many felt was lacking during the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire
“The response was so much different from the Chetco Bar Fire,” Boice said. “”I admire your bravery.”
George said when the lightning storm that preceded the Klondike Fire struck, he studied reports and concluded the strike that would become the Klondike Fire would be the one to “give us fits.”
Working closely with county and other leaders in the community is critical.
“It’s in tune with what the county wants,” George said. “We’re not at a place where we can simply do it all.”
George indicated that keeping the community safe is his utmost priority.
“I’ve seen so many catastrophes in the past 20 years,” George said. “In the last seven years, I’ved hired 75 incident command teams and there was $1 billion spent trying to put fires out. If someone who understands the needs of more active management, I have a first row seat to what that looks like.”
Boice noted that several huge fires have struck the area in that time, including the 2002 Biscuit Fire that burned almost 500,000 acres, the largest fire in Oregon until the 2012 Long Draw Fire at 558,198 acres in Southeast Oregon.
Other local conflagrations have included the 112,000-acre Silver Fire in 1987, and the 191,125-acre Chetco Bar Fire. Numerous others were extinguished before they could escape and threaten coastal towns in Curry County.
Among George’s goals are to get on any fire as quickly as possible, reduce the smoke and assist with the safety of citizens and share that information with the community.
“If we don’t put firefighters on the ground, it transfers the risk to local communities,” he said. ‘It’s a storyline that changes by the minute. If it’s not there, it’s hard to share with (people).
He commended Boice for having attended every community fire meeting in the last two megafires and trying to disseminate that information.
After the criticism of what they believed to be a slow response to the Chetco Bar Fire and the unwillingness to listen to locals who know the peculiar weather and geography here, forest officials have taken heed, George has said.
“Taxpayers have the right to know what I’m doing and not doing,” he said. “The stakes are too high not to have any awkward conversations. It’s important we learn from the people with local knowledge.”
Unlike the Chetco Bar Fire, which simmered in the backcountry for days before crews attacked it, a more aggressive stance was taken with last summer’s wildfire, George said. The initial attack involved helicopters, smokejumpers and firefighters on the ground building fire lines in hopes of containing the flames.
“We do know how hard it is to fight fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness,” George said of the difficulties encountered trying to get firefighters safely in. “It’s some of the most difficult terrain in the world.”
Forest Service road closures was another issue of contention before and during the Chetco Bar Fire, as many feel access for firefighting is of utmost importance.
George said, too, the Forest Service is working on fuel reduction, as well, with 60 million board feet under contract this year. About 35 million board feet were sold last year. A decision is due early next fall on the Shasta-Agness lands near Agness, as well.
He disagreed with a question posited by a member of the audience presuming that thinning doesn’t help keep fires at bay, but added that periodic low-intensity burns — such as those historically done by Native Americans throughout the centuries — would be highly beneficial.
“The Hoopa language doesn’t even have a word for ‘large nuclear burn,’” George said of regular burns conducted by Indians in the past. “The last person off Trinity Summit (after the hunting season) would light Trinity Summit. These (forests) haven’t seen fire, and they should.”
“We also have the problem that (fire) is not an exact science,” Robeson said. “You have to have community buy in. You put fire on the ground, you can have a problem. But if you do it right, it’ll work. It’s a balancing act. We want to be cautious, but we want to clean landscapes up.”
Such fires typically have to be done every five to seven years, which also is labor-intensive.
“It’s not a one-and-done kind of thing, but it’s been proven time and time again,” George said. “And clearing the understory prevents ladder fuels from (climbing into the trees). It’s just hard to pay for all that service work.”
Exacerbating the problem is years of fire suppression, monoculture “tree gardens” and native forests that are all the same age and ripe for the next big fire. He hopes to also use stakeholders using the Good Neighbor Authority; that program allows the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements or contracts with states to perform watershed restoration and forest management services on National Forest system.
“Shared stewardship is a big deal,” he said. “We can’t do it all by ourselves.”
Home fire mitigation
Mike Robeson of the Coos Forest Protective Association said people need to take the responsibility and accept the need for fuel reduction.
“We need fires on all the ridges right now to keep fire in the backcountry when we have lightning,” he said. “As a community, we have to to get the mindset that we have fire (here). Our private land is in no better shape than Forest Service land. We want to see roads open, water holes, trails maintained and boots on the ground to get fires out.”
An updated community wildfire plan — the last one was crafted for Curry County in 2008 — that educates people on fire behavior and predicts what different fires might do is needed, as well.
A new FireWise program needs to be activated in neighborhoods, as well. That program teaches people how to adapt to living with wildfire and encourages neighbors to work together and take action to prevent fires, reduce their damage and increase safety.
“We need to be proactive,” George said. “There are things I want to do to protect Southwest Oregon, and I’m going to be here a while to make that happen.”