Could The Chetco Bar Fire Have Been Prevented?

Oct 9, 2017

The Chetco Bar fire, near Brookings on Oregon’s south coast, simmered for weeks in the scars of previous fires in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness before breaking out in mid-August. As the fire raced across the landscape, driven by high winds, the firefighting effort came under growing criticism.

For a few weeks in late summer, Chetco Bar was the nation’s top priority fire. It burned in an area of more than 191,000 acres, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate and destroying several homes. It also – along with other major fires – created unhealthy air quality over western Oregon and northern California. As the fire grew and the air thickened, tempers flared. 

“It’s horrific. And there is no (expletive) excuse for it whatsoever,” Rogue River resident Ken Lewis said.

On his YouTube video blog, Lewis accused the Forest Service of allowing the Chetco Bar fire to burn as part of a liberal agenda.

“The U.S. Forest Service could have prevented this easily, and they didn’t,” Lewis said.

Conservative talk radio host Bill Meyer – at KMED in Medford – repeatedly blasted the Chetco Bar fire response. 

“I have no doubt that the terrain where this started, the original quarter acre, is very difficult and possibly dangerous for on the ground,” Meyer said on his talk show. “But it could have been taken care of back then with a few helicopter buckets. And then we would be talking about what a great summer we’ve having.”

Angry tweets and Facebook posts amplified the indignation. This is the atmosphere Forest Service officials faced at a public meeting in Brookings on Sept. 28. About 120 people showed up at the high school gym to hear what fire managers had to say. Craig Trulock, with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, denied the fire was deliberately allowed to burn. 

“Just wanted to state right off, this was never a fire that we wanted,” Trulock told the public. “Y’know, this was a suppression fire. The decision was made within 15 minutes.”

Fire officer Monty Edwards assumed command of the fire on July 13, the day after it was first reported. Edwards said firefighters who rappelled into the remote scene struggled with steep, unstable slopes, and that it soon became clear the terrain was too treacherous to keep firefighters on the ground. 

“The lack of safety zones and escape routes became really evident that we’re probably gonna get somebody hurt if we remain engaged like we are,” Edwards said.

The decision was made to pull back and figure out a better way to attack the fire. Edwards dismissed the claim that a few aerial water drops could have killed the fire early on. 

“They can’t do it alone with just aviation assets,” Edwards said. “You need someone the ground to go in direct and knock out the fire on the ground. That’s basic firefighting.”

In fact, Edwards said, during the first day helicopters had dropped more than 50 buckets containing over 17,000 gallons of water.

Long-time Medford resident John Prendergast was on the national fire management team that took command on July 29. Prendergast told the crowd at Brookings-Harbor High School that a rising toll of firefighter deaths has led to a national policy.

“Before we expose our wildland firefighters to the hazards found in the wild land fire environment, there has to be a reasonable probability of success, and that we’re not going to place their lives at an unacceptable risk,” Prendergast said.

Prendergast said that’s why crews were pulled back from direct engagement with the Chetco Bar fire. Instead, managers decided to build a containment line miles to the southwest, to cut off the fire if it moved toward Brookings. The plan was to deliberately burn from that line back toward the wildfire, creating a safe buffer. But before that could happen, the weather shifted, triggering the hot, dry wind conditions known as the Chetco Effect. Prendergast said that was the game-changer. 

“Our fire behavior analysts, they factored in the Chetco Wind Effect into the models and even with that, it greatly outpaced the model predictions of how that fire was going to grow,” Prendergast said.

Starting August 15, fanned by 45 mph winds funneled down the Chetco River valley, the fire exploded. In five days it grew from 6,000 acres to more than 91,000, jumping the Chetco River and burning over the containment line meant to protect Brookings. Evacuations were ordered and the fire ultimately came within five miles of town before rain and cooler weather helped damp it down over the following weeks.

After the September 28th meeting in Brookings, few in the audience seemed mollified by the official explanations. Several people I spoke to said they’d received information that contradicted those accounts, but they wouldn’t identify their sources. Curry County Commissioner Court Boice’s skeptical response spoke for many. 

“They have a fairly convincing story that they tried to put the fire out early,” Boice said after the meeting. “And it’s very, very difficult for us to accept that as really the reality of what happened.”

Boice said he’s pressing for a Congressional investigation of not only the handling of the Chetco Bar fire, but of federal forest policies he blames for wildfires across the West.

Kale Casey, the incident management team on the Chetco Bar fire, said he understands people’s anger over property losses. But he said the fire’s zero casualty rate proved the value of management’s focus on firefighter safety. 

“As hard as it is to see those different families speak about their lost homes, we didn’t have to talk about mothers and fathers and grandparents losing their children out here working on the fire line,” Casey said.

As autumn arrives and the ashes cool, arguments about wildfire policy are sure to heat up northwest state capitals – and Washington D.C. – for some time to come.