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Counties, firefighters review effort

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

An unusual gathering of local, state and federal firefighting officials and county leaders convened here yesterday to understand what went wrong in the battle of the Biscuit Fire and how to make communication across state lines more fluid.

The meeting was organized by Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn who says the fire could have and should have been put out the day it started.

"We're not here to point fingers, but to fill in the pieces of the puzzle and maybe correct some things so they don't happen in the future," Blackburn said to begin the meeting.

The U.S. Forest Service also used the occasion to present its report and chronology of each and all of the fires in the complex.

What started as a slow burning lightning strike July 13 near the Sour Dough camp in Curry County became a 60,000 acre blaze within two weeks and eventually joined the Biscuit and Florence Fire complex of 500,000 burning acres, costing $150 million to fight.

U.S. Forest Service officials from the Siskiyou National Forest, Six Rivers National Forest and the California Department of Forestry listened to each other's accounts of the firefighting effort and heard the concerns of county leaders from Josephine, Curry and Del Norte counties.

The main complaint from Blackburn about the fire affecting Del Norte County was that a CDF helicopter carrying a firefighting crew and a water bucket saw the fire just after it began across the Oregon border, asked for federal permission to put it out and was denied.

"I saw it when it was two trees burning," said firefighting helicopter pilot Fred Flores of CDF's Rohnerville Air Attack Base near Florence.

"We had just come from putting out the Peridotite Canyon Fire and we were doing reconnaissance flights up here because of all the lightning strikes," Flores said.

On July 13, Flores said he and his crew spotted and reported both the Sourdough and Biscuit Fires. He said he had with him a crew and equipment to put the fires out, but was denied permission from the Siskiyou National Forest headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service Firefighting Division.

"I could have put them on the ground to fight it with their tools and gotten the water from the river," Flores said.

No clear reason for why Flores was denied permission was offered by U.S. Forest Service officials present at the meeting.

Previously, USFS representatives said Flores was likely told no because of the numerous dictates built into the government firefighting bureaucracy, such as confirming a good weather report, securing back-up personnel and laying out an escape plan.

Blackburn and the Josephine and Curry County commissions at the meeting said it is that overly encumbered bureaucracy of the two state and one federal agencies that needs to be boiled down.

"The citizens don't care whose responsibility it is, they want the fire out. That's why I'm here, to improve cooperation and more effectively deal with these issues," said Josephine County Commissioner Jim Brock.

Brock's county was devastated, he said, by the Florence Fire, because it took too long for sufficient crews to arrive and begin fighting it.

Paul Galloway of the USFS said this year's weather brought unusually dangerous fire conditions for the entire west.

Nearly 275 fires were burning at the same time as the Florence and Biscuit fires in Oregon alone, he said.

Crews based in Josephine which could have helped put out the Florence Fire were elsewhere fighting other fires. Some were in other states.

The politicians implored the firefighting officials to sit down this winter and review ways to better cooperate and communicate to get the job done.

Spokesperson for USDF Mary Marrs said now agencies are now aware of the problem and sitting down together will help.

Crescent Fire Protection District Fire Chief John McFarland agreed.

"It's a good thing just to have all these people come together," he said adding that the gathering is unprecedented.

Both Siskiyou and Six Rivers National Forest officials said they will be meeting this winter and just before May 1 to review their operational plans and policies, though no guarantees were offered to improve communication and response times.

Each of the county leaders vowed to lobby federal and state law makers for more firefighting funds.

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