Request to fight fire was denied

August 16, 2002 12:00 am
A firefighter stands among a sea of tents in Brookings, where crews have relocated to reinforce crews battling the western flank of the giant Biscuit fire in Oregon. Oregon's governor dispatched more help yesterday to protect coastal communities. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
A firefighter stands among a sea of tents in Brookings, where crews have relocated to reinforce crews battling the western flank of the giant Biscuit fire in Oregon. Oregon's governor dispatched more help yesterday to protect coastal communities. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Fire officials have acknowledged a request was made to attempt to extinguish the Biscuit Fire when it was only 100 acres, but that request was turned down.

"They offered to make one run on the fire to do bucket work for one fuel cycle," said Paul Galloway, information officer for the Biscuit Fire said. "But management didn't believe that would be helpful. There were no ground crews to take advantage of it and it would have had minimal effect."

Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn said yesterday the helicopter crew believed it could have made an impact.

"The helicopter offered to try and make an impact and they were told no," said Blackburn. "... 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."

Blackburn, who said he will not reveal the names of those who have confided in him, said he has been analyzing the fire response for two weeks and has come to the conclusion more could have been done.

"I think there was a problem between the regions and getting permission to go in and put the fire out," he said. "I'm not after people's names or pointing fingers. I just want to make sure that regions don't become a problem, the stateline doesn't become a problem, so years down the road when this reoccurs we don't have a problem."

The incident with the California Department of Forestry helicopter occurred on July 14, one day after the Sour Biscuit Fire was ignited by a lightning strike in the Siskiyou National Forest. Galloway said the fire, centered in a remote and roadless section of forestland, was reportedly 100 acres in size at that time.

The Biscuit Fire was one of "hundreds" that sparked throughout Oregon around the same time, Galloway said. Because of this, resources were stretched thin on July 13 and no crews were assigned to the Sour Biscuit blaze until July 14, and those crews basically attempted to make roads into the area.

The first report of the Biscuit blaze was received at 3:15 p.m. from a fixed-wing reconnaissance flight in the area. At 3:50 p.m., another blaze was spotted at Carter Creek.

"There was confusion whether or not there were two fires at first," said Galloway. "Folks from the Six Rivers National Forest also saw smoke in the area and reported it. It was determined later there was only one fire (in the Biscuit area)."

Rick Addy, the federal manager for the Six River National Forest, said interstate fire response is common, with some exceptions.

"The closest forces will respond to a fire, like with a lightning strike, and after the initial attack they take care of theirs and we take care of ours," Addy said. "Except for aircraft. They have to be coordinated because it's not safe to mix aircraft. There's a real safety issue involved."

Galloway said there was no aircraft assigned to the Biscuit blaze on July 14 when the helicopter aid was declined.

Blackburn said an offer from ground crews, with the Gasquet Ranger District in the Six Rivers National Forest, to attack the blaze was also declined in Oregon's Region Six. Galloway said he could find no official mention of this offer.

Galloway said his reports mention no managers' names or offices where the decisions originated from.

Further complications arose with the Sour Biscuit Fire between July 27 and Aug. 1, after the fire entered into California. Blackburn said helicopters were idled in Gasquet while a change of command was being prepared and aircraft communication frequencies were in limbo.

"Nothing was happening here because everything was coming out of Oregon," Blackburn said. He said at 10 a.m. on Aug. 1, he watched opportunities to fight the blaze being squandered because crews were told to wait until 6 p.m.

"They were flying into the Shelley Creek Fire with water and Linda Szczepanik (incident commander of Shelley Creek) was trying to get frequencies released for the Biscuit Fire. I stood there and watched, but she couldn't get the frequencies released. So there's another eight hours lost for Sour Biscuit."

Galloway said it will be at least another week before he can compile a chronology for communications and decisions from fire managers for late July and early August.

Meanwhile, Blackburn said local counties must be proactive if they want to avert similar problems in the future. Blackburn said a meeting is being coordinated for late September between Del Norte County and the Oregon counties of Curry and Josephine to reach agreements with Forest Service Regions Five and Six, the California Division of Forestry, the Oregon Division of Forestry along with local fire officials and legislators.

"We have a good opportunity here to resolve any future problems," said Blackburn. "I'm not calling this meeting to say ‘you screwed up' or ‘he screwed up.' I'm saying ‘What can we do to see that this never happens again?'"

The Sour Biscuit Fire, which eventually burned more than 48,000 acres in Oregon and California, later merged with the larger Florence Fire in Oregon. The combined fire was renamed the Biscuit Fire and is currently responsible for nearly 400,000 acres of scorched forestland.