By Chuck Blackburn

Over the years we as Del Norters have experienced natural disasters — wind, floods, tsunamis and fires. Tsunamis and flood we have very little control over. But fires we do have some ability to control or put them out.

Through my longtime experiences here but also as an eight-year member of our Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, it has given a new perspective in dealing with these matters.

Most of my committee assignments were related to forestry, state and national parks and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. My experience representing all of Del Norte County with all of these agencies is that they have mostly changed their attitudes in swing with preservationists efforts to influence environmental law to favor their save everything attitude. Some of their efforts had merit in today’s world but so many were overkill.

In the last 30 to 40 years we have had so much private ownership purchased through groups like Save the Redwoods League and other non-profits, then turned over to the forest service, Bureau of Land Management or the state and national parks. This is taking tremendous volumes of land off our tax rolls that support our communities.

One such purchase in 2002 was the Miller-Rellim sale of its mill site and 25,000 acres of various stages of redwoods to Save the Redwoods League and awarded to California State Parks and the National Park Service. The county received a $5 million mitigation out of a $61 million sale.

I was chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and was assisted by Supervisor David Finigan, County Counsel Bob Black and Del Norte County Assessor Jerry Cochran. This was the first time that a county received such a mitigation.

My point in giving a little of this history is that we don’t have as a rural community much clout at the state and federal level.

I would like to revert over to the real reason for this story. The current Chetco Bar Fire started in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area east of Brookings as a lightning strike. The current philosophy in wilderness areas is let it burn. It fits in well with the philosophy of “Fire is good.” This philosophy has resulted in record areas burned in wildfires, mostly in the western U.S.

We had in 1987 the Silver Fire north of Cave Junction, Oregon, which burned mostly in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. No mechanized equipment could be used to fight the fire. Donny Mattz and I were broadcasting a Del Norte vs. Illinois Valley football game. Lucky enough by game time, cool air of the evening moved in and cleared the smoke out. They were not allowed to log single trees and many trees rotted in time and ended up on the ground with thousands of snags left standing.

Let’s move to July 13, 2002 when a lightning storm formed south of Crescent City and swept northeast of town and up the North Fork of the Smith River. I was on the board of supervisors at the time representing District 3 where all the action was going to be.

CAL FIRE has a regional base in Fortuna, sharing that with Six Rivers National Forest. There were lightning strikes on the North Fork of the Smith River between Sourdough Campground and Brookings and south of Agnes on the Rogue River.

I received a call from both our local CAL FIRE office and the regional office in Fortuna, asking my help in tracking the events with them of the lack of effort to put out the fire southeast of Brookings. They showed me the reports of their helicopter ground crew, putting out a tree-top fire on the North Fork south of the border.

They had success in dousing it but saw smoke north of the border. They flew up and noticed a couple of trees ignited and burning. They called Fortuna Base, which contacted Siskiyou National Forest in Medford. The response was “Do not fight the fire” and return to base.

CAL FIRE officials were not happy campers with the issue and how they were being treated by Siskiyou National Forest and fire command. CAL FIRE fed me daily infrared pictures of the Brookings and Agnes fires. They were at least starting to fight the Agnes fire with helicopters and retardant bombers out of Medford.

I kept daily notes through the second week of August. Northwest winds pushed the fires extremely fast and the northern and southern fires converged on July 30. It roared south past the California border and by the first week of August, Low Divide was evacuated and Gasquet on evacuation notice.

It was only then that Tech Team 1 out of Colorado took control of the effort to fight the Biscuit Fire. It finally was a full-blown effort to control this fire. I will always value my experiences working with CAL FIRE.

On Oct. 2, 2002, I joined CAL FIRE in a congressional hearing in Grants Pass chaired by Greg Walden and Pete Defazio, congressmen from central and southwestern Oregon. They both had my records and CAL FIRE’s records as we testified what an experience this was for this country boy. In 2006, I testified in front of Walden in Washington D.C. on another matter. I consider Greg a top notch congressman.

The Chetco Bar Fire originated with a lightning strike east of Brookings in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and started out as a quarter acre spot fire. It’s a natural occurrence in a wilderness so we don’t fight it. Thus the loss of 500,000 acres in the Biscuit Fire and the Chetco Bar Fire is currently at 180,000 acres and growing daily.

Yes we can change these rules of engagement in firefighting and limit wilderness fires.

Chuck Blackburn is a former Del Norte County supervisor and lives in Fort Dick.

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