Fires in Federal Forests

Originally published in The Oregonian, October 28, 2012

Barry Point wildfire highlights shortfalls of forest management

The devastation is incredible.

Ignited by a lightning strike on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the Barry Point wildfire near Lakeview ran for about 30 miles, burning more than 10 miles into California. In places the fire was more than 10 miles wide. The fire totally consumed the trees on nearly 40,000 acres and caused as much as 75 percent tree mortality on an additional 35,000 acres of forestland. In total, it burned nearly 60,000 acres of federal forest, and 33,000 acres of privately owned lands. Collins Cos., which owns the only remaining sawmill in Lakeview, had more than 22,000 acres of timber plantations incinerated.

A significant number of cattle were burned alive and many more were severely injured. Elk, deer and other animals were also killed, and extensive ancient eco-system habit was destroyed. Thankfully, there was no loss of human life. However, many landowners are looking at the near total destruction of the value of their property, through no fault of their own. There is little chance they will be compensated for the losses caused by the fire that originated on federal land.

Unfortunately, Barry Point is just one of dozens of similar situations in Oregon and other Western states.

This incredible loss did not result from inaction of the state’s first responders. The Oregon Department of Forestry had a pumper on the fire within 15 minutes. In a recent tour of the area, I was told that the department dispatched a total of seven pumpers, two helicopters, two water-scooping airplanes and two hand crews totaling 30 firefighters that same afternoon.

But that’s not to say the Barry Point conflagration was merely an act of nature — the inevitable result of dry conditions, high winds and a lightning strike — that couldn’t be prevented or stopped.

Federal, state and private foresters alike pointed to the non-management of federal forest resources that led up to this disastrous event. This lack of management has caused an extreme accumulation of ground and ladder fuels that virtually ensures a fire holocaust under dry and windy summer conditions. The predictable outcome of huge accumulations of grass, brush, and diseased and dying trees on federal lands is that even more wildfires will develop into still worse holocausts. All agreed that these virtually uncontrollable wildfires will continue to occur until those failed management policies are significantly improved.

Many landowners voiced concerns regarding how the fire suppression effort was prosecuted. They pointed out numerous specific lost chances to curtail or control the fire. Opportunities to help the landowners build close-in fire lines and burnouts were disregarded. There was a lack of timely communication between federal and state employees with private land interests. Private landowners’ knowledge of the terrain and access points was routinely ignored and even disrespected. Their land was routinely trespassed, and in some cases, it was burned by setting backfires without either notification or permission.

Several owners contended that both private and federal forest and grazing resources were needlessly destroyed by igniting large backfires that did little if any good. They said there appeared to be reluctance by the federal fire team to take direct action by getting in close to stop the fire even during periods when the fire was laid down and moving slowly.

Our nation’s timber and grazing resources are routinely being wasted. At the same time, our timber industry infrastructure is vanishing because of a lack of access to public timberlands. The status quo is simply unacceptable. Barry Point fire is an example of how our state and federal policies must be improved and why common-sense management must be restored.

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