10 years ago, fires imperiled north Del Norte
Longtime local residents have plenty of memories of the fires of ’02 — hundreds of residents of Low Divide Road and Gasquet were forced to evacuate as the flames came uncomfortably close to consuming their homes and masses of firefighters converged on Del Norte.
“It was like a war zone with fire helicopters coming in and out and scooping water from the Smith River to fight the fire,” recalled Gasquet resident Jane Christmas.
The lightning-sparked Biscuit Fire Complex collectively became one of the largest U.S. wildfires on record, burning just shy of a half-million acres, including nearly 30,000 acres in Del Norte County.
Some locals residing deep in the woods of Del Norte recognize that the threat of wildfires is something that “comes with the neighborhood,” said longtime Low Divider Steve Stary. But surrendering to the reality of the wilderness is not easy when massive wildfires threaten homes and families — especially if questions linger about the manner in which the fire was managed.
The Biscuit Fire eventually gained national prominence on multiple political fronts for the U.S. Forest Service’s initial response and a national debate on how much salvage logging — if any — would be allowed in the burn.
Ignited by lightning
Severe drought in many Western states created an intense, early fire season in 2002 including the nearly 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona and the nearly 140,000-acre Hayman fire in Colorado. By late June, well before the Biscuit Fire even started, the National Interagency Fire Center called for the highest level of fire preparedness.
From July 12 to 15, lightning storms ignited small fires in southwestern Oregon that would become the Biscuit Fire complex. The massive blaze started with two small fires near Biscuit Creek a few miles north of the California-Oregon border, which were spotted by firefighters July 13 and 14. Higher priority fires in the region prevented firefighting resources from initially fighting the small fires, according to the GAO report. Siskiyou National Forest fire managers decide to first staff the Carter Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area west of Cave Junction, which was also spotted July 13.
On July 14, a helicopter crew from the California Department of Forestry offered to attack the flames, but Oregon Forest Service officials refused the request, saying that they didn’t believe the helicopter could suppress the blaze that was then around 300 acres, according to the report.
On July 15, the Sourdough Fire (near Sourdough campground) and the Florence Fire (northern part of Kalmiopsis Wilderness, west of Selma) were found. The Florence Fire, located about 30 miles north of the original Biscuit fires, would become the biggest, eventually burning 244,000 acres by early August — almost half of the total area burned by the Biscuit complex.
The Florence Fire came close to burning through two high-voltage transmission lines that carry all of Del Norte County’s electricity for 14,800 local customers.
For eight weeks, a total of 43 helicopters, 238 fire engines and 87 bulldozers aided a firefighting team that at its peak reached 6,800 people, including crews from Australia and Canada.
By Sept. 5, a 405-mile ring of a break line had been created around the Biscuit Fire, effectively containing the beast, but the inferno would not be declared completely extinguished until Dec. 31, more than five months after it began. Despite the acreage and length of the fire, the Biscuit only destroyed four primary residences and 10 other structures, but roughly 15,000 residents were put on evacuation notice and the cost of firefighting reached more than $150 million.
‘Big surprise’ on Low Divide
Steve Stary has lived seven miles up Low Divide Road for more than 30 years in a home he built himself. He likens living on Low Divide to the experience his pioneering great great-grandfather, Mr. Howland, must have had when he settled a ranch on the road now named for him, Howland Hill Road.
On Saturday, July 27, the Sour Biscuit Fire (combining the Biscuit Fire and the Sourdough Fire) crossed from Oregon into California, fueled by strong winds and low humidity.
On the afternoon of Sunday July 28, Stary remembers authorities visiting his home to inform him that the fire was 10-12 miles away, and there was no need to evacuate at that time. By 8 p.m. that evening, the quickly-spreading fire made officials reconsider and call for an evacuation of all residents on Low Divide Road.
“The call to evacuate came as a big surprise,” Stary said. “I had to check with a few neighbors to make sure that it was real.”
As the Sour Biscuit Fire swept into the area, another fire, dubbed the Shelley Creek Fire, sprouted on Highway 199, causing an evacuation of Bar-O-Boys Ranch juvenile detention facility and visitors to the Patrick Creek Lodge.
Stary made several phone calls to friends and family to arrange for trucks and able-bodied persons to move as much belongings out of the home as possible.
“The first things we loaded up were photographs and clothing; the things you need and the things you can’t replace,” he said. While the impromptu crew hurried items away, Stary recalls a smoky scene with burnt-black clumps of pine needles that would float by, hit the ground and fall apart in a cloud of ashes.
Some Low Divide pets were let loose to fend for themselves when their owners could not collect them in time to evacuate. When residents were allowed to go back to their homes briefly to collect more items and inspect for damage, Stary remembers coming upon an emu that was turned loose by a neighbor unable to transport the animal.
“I didn’t know there was an emu up there until he was running around loose and staring at me from the middle of the road,” he said. “He was wild for a couple months after that.”
During one of the brief visits days after evacuation, Stary stood at a vista point about a quarter-mile from his house and watched trees across the canyon go up in flames. He continued to go to work at his job at Ace Hardware in Brookings even as a refugee.
Like many Del Norte residents, Stary and his family took a trip up the coast during the evacuation in an attempt to escape the smoke and get some fresh air.
On July 31, dozens of grim-faced and worried Gasquet residents gathered at the American Legion Hall for a meeting with Forest Service officials, who informed the crowd that there was no need to evacuate yet, but an evacuation would be triggered if the fire came within 1.5 air miles of Gasquet.
By the time the Shelley Creek fire was contained on August 4, most parts of Del Norte County had witnessed a brown-orange plume of smoke that blotted out the sun and rained ash for more than a week.
“When it got closer and closer the sky went red, and that is a very frightening experience, because you don’t know if your house is going to go up or not,” said Christmas, who is also a Gasquet weather spotter for the National Weather Service. Christmas recorded a temperature of 102 degrees in the shade on the day of the evacuation. She drenched her mobile home, storage shed and yard as fire officials advised. “It was so hot, it was insane, and everything dried up in about five minutes,” she said.
Christmas and the rest of Gasquet was officially told to evacuate on Aug. 8 after heavy winds caused 2,200 additional acres of land near the North Fork of the Smith River to catch fire, bringing the fire within 1.5 air miles of Gasquet. Many residents had already left.
Some evacuees took comfort in the Red Cross shelter set up at Del Norte High School, which had a sea of tents housing firefighters.
By Aug. 11, Gasquet residents were allowed to return home and the Del Norte fires were considered to be mostly under control, but north of the border the Biscuit burned on, becoming the largest fire in Oregon’s recorded history at that point. The Long Draw Fire this summer surpassed the Oregon record by burning close to 590,000 acres.
Questioning response time
In the back of the pickup truck that serves as a mobile office for former Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn, there is usually a black folder full of documents that he collected in the weeks after the Biscuit Fire burned through his county.
One is a report from California Department of Forestry Air Attack 120, which outlines that a firefighting helicopter crew believed that it could’ve extinguished the initial, smaller Biscuit fires if it had not been turned away by the Siskiyou National Forest dispatch, which was the lead agency fighting the fire at the time.
“I saw it when it was two trees burning,” pilot Fred Flores told the Triplicate in 2002. He was with CDF’s Rohnerville Air Attack Base.
“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 in 2002.
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.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Blackburn was very vocal about what he saw as mismanagement and territorial actions that ultimately allowed the smaller Biscuit fires to grow and cross into California.
“The helicopter offered to try and make an impact and they were told no,” Blackburn said in 2002. “... I can’t say for sure. Maybe it couldn’t have been put out. But I’ve been talking to people who should know, and the people I have talked to said it could have, and should have, been put out.”
At that time, fire officials acknowledged that a request from the CDF helicopter was made to attempt to extinguish the Biscuit fire when it covered less than 100 acres, but Siskiyou National Forest management didn’t think that it would have been helpful without ground crews available and would have had minimal effect.
The dispute eventually warranted an investigation from the GAO. Its report said there was disagreement at the Fortuna dispatch center (where the helicopter was based) between CDF officials and Forest Service officials about whether or not the helicopter could have really been available to assist with the initial Biscuit Fire. CDF believed it could have helped.
“Forest Service officials working with Fortuna personnel disagreed, saying that the helicopter had been needed to fight fires in California. Because no request was made, there was no discussion on that first day about whether the Biscuit Fire would have been the best use of the helicopter, and it is unclear, in any case, what the outcome of such a request would have been,” the report said.
The GAO report also states a Fortuna-based helicopter was turned away on July 14 because at that time the fire was 300 acres — too large to be suppressed with one air attack crew.
That crew’s observation report, however, said the fire was smaller than that.
“On the return flight the helicopter crew discussed possible attack strategies for the fire. The general consensus was that the fire was accessible and that we could have contained the more active flanks of the fire,” the helicopter report states.
Findings from scientists from the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University added more heat to the controversy of the Biscuit Fire when they contended that salvage logging in the burned area of the Biscuit Fire would cause more harm than good.
“It was the conventional wisdom that salvage logging and planting could reduce the risk of high-severity fires,” said Jonathan R. Thompson, a doctoral candidate in forest science at Oregon State, who was lead author of the study that appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Our data suggest otherwise.”
The scientists’ data suggested that large stands of closely packed young trees created by replanting are a much more volatile source of fuel for decades to come than the large dead trees that are cut down and hauled away in salvage logging operations.
The Bush administration and its Republican allies in Congress had pushed heavily for mass salvage logging and accused environmental lawsuits of hampering the post-fire logging.
Another report from the GAO found that the lawsuits by environmentalists did not hinder the logging, but rather the scope of the project, the environmental laws in place and the Bush Administration’s decision to change its plans and dramatically increase logging mid-operation was responsible for the delays.
The GAO report also highlighted how the Forest Service spent $11 million on salvage logging and recouped less than $9 million in selling the wood saved.
Biscuit Fire discoveries
Starting in 1997, Bernard Bormann, a forest ecologist and soil scientist with the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station has been studying the effects of different forest management treatments. When the Biscuit Fire burned through vast swaths of Bormann’s research area, a rare opportunity was presented to study the effects of an intense fire:
• The giant clouds of smoke created by large wildfires contain amazing amounts of soil that are sucked into the sky from “cyclonic cycles” that can reach 100 mph in large fires, removing fine minerals and small rock particles and leaving behind the heavier layer of rocks and particles, Bormann has hypothesized. Using soil data collected before and after the Biscuit Fire, Bormann noticed about an inch worth of soil was gone, and he estimates that 100 dump trucks worth of soil was sucked into the air from one 15-acre plot.
“We looked at satellite imagery and you could see this brown smoke traveling over Northern California and out into the ocean,” Bormann said. Siskiyou soils “are fertilizing the ocean,” he said.
• Just ten years after the fire, healthy 20-foot stands of madrones, tanoaks and knobcone pines are thriving. The madrones and tanoaks sprouted from tap roots called burls that go deep into the bedrock. Researchers have found roots four meters deep after dynamiting into the bedrock, Bormann said.
Some of the madrone burls that Bormann has studied are estimated to be several thousands years old and could have regenerated many times after fires.
• Many areas that previously sustained healthy stands of Douglas fir now hold vast stands of young knobcone pines that started producing cones five years after the burn, Bormann said.
• From comparing the effect of the fire on different treatments, Bormann’s team was surprised to find that more trees burned in mature Douglas fir stands that had been thinned than in the control plots of mature Douglas fir stands that were left alone and plots that were clear-cut and then tightly replanted with Douglas fir.
Conventional timber management holds that thinning timber stands prevents fire spreading by decreasing lateral fuels, but most of the trees killed in Bormann’s test plots were killed by heat — not by catching fire.
The Forest Service is conducting a study to gauge the effect of salvage logging on forest regeneration, but Bormann said that the amount of salvage logging done was so minimal that “to expect it would have great impact is weak, because it is such a small portion of the total landscape,” he said.
Some of that research was hampered by the salvage logging controversy, and although preliminary results are expected this year, comprehensive forestry research takes time.
“The proof of the pudding will take another 10 years to really sort out,” Bormann said.