A week and a half ago, kids with firecrackers set off a fire at a crowded Eagle Creek trail. Within minutes, officials were responding. Contrast that with the Whitewater Fire, where, as of last week, 11,000 acres are burning mostly out of control in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness area.
In that case, it appears officials waited weeks before intervening.
The official story, as chronicled in the Salem Statesman Journal, is that a lightning strike from a June storm hit a tree near Jefferson Park, and went undetected and "sat smoldering ... for almost a month." Once detected, the U.S. Forest Service "hit it with everything they had," the paper reported.
But according to landowners near the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness area, the USFS account is fiction. They aren't buying it.
Worried landowners say Detroit District Ranger Grady McMahan told them the Forest Service knew about the smoldering tree right after the initial lightning strike.
Others on the fringes of the fire give this basic account:
- The lightning strike hit the tree on June 26.
- The fire ignited when the smoldering tree fell on July 23.
- The Forest Service had been monitoring the situation for over three weeks before the July 23 flare-up.
- Once the fire picked up, the Forest Service remained on the sidelines until it was outside of the Wilderness. By then, it was too late to contain the fire.
The same Forest Service pattern — inaction until the fire was out of control — also occurred this summer with the much larger Chetco Bar Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness area, which now is nearing 200,000 acres and threatens the town of Brookings.
But distance from media and population centers puts those fires, the choking smoke and the losses out of sight and out of mind for most Oregonians.
In the case of the Whitewater Fire, some industry insiders blame USFS inaction for the millions of taxpayer dollars spent so far, and the monetary loss to the owners of private timberlands adjacent to wilderness area, not to mention the loss of the wilderness itself.
So, what's the motive for the Forest Service inaction? Half of the Forest Service's budget is for fighting fires in national forests, so the problem is not resources. It is more likely ideology, and just plain regulatory overkill.
McMahan told the Eugene Register Guard, "Our goal was to put the fire out, while protecting wilderness characteristics and private land and structures. It is a difficult balancing act."
Here's an example of that balancing act: If a fire breaks out on private timberlands or on national forest acres that are harvested for timber production, the Forest Service is allowed to use mechanized equipment to put out the fire — chain saws, helicopters, etc. But if a fire occurs in a wilderness area, in this case the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness area, even if that area is just a few miles away from national forest or private timber, no mechanized equipment is allowed to fight the fires — not even chain saws.
Raise your hand if you think it's a good idea to burn down our wilderness areas when suppression could be as easy as a single helicopter water drop on a single lightning-hit tree.
For neighboring landowners, there is no recourse if a fire spreads from a federal wilderness area, causing massive financial losses. Landowners cannot sue the federal government, but the federal government can sue a private landowner if a fire spreads from their property onto federal lands. Jim Geisinger of Associated Oregon Loggers believes this kind of federal hypocrisy is "just criminal."
For the Forest Service, fighting fires in wilderness areas is a bit like what happens to the U.S. military when fighting an asymmetrical war, bogged down by the Pentagon's "Rules of Engagement." No wonder the Forest Service might be less than candid with the media.
What this bureaucratic balancing and bungling doesn't do is help the 700 firefighters contain the Whitewater Fire, the 1,400 firefighters fight the Chetco Bar Fire or the anxious residents of Brookings.
Thousands of acres of wilderness area are burned down, national forest decimated, private timberlands destroyed, structures and lives put at risk or worse, and smoke-filled skies choke the life out of summer for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, causing health problems and loading carbon into the air by the ton.
That's not fire policy, that's a tragedy. And it's also dishonest.