Playing with fire

By Sarah Foster

Editor’s note: This exclusive report is part of Whistleblower magazine’s eye-opening October issue, “GREEN WITH ENVY: Exposing radical environmentalists’ assault on Western civilization,” which is available at WorldNetDaily’s online store.

In the early afternoon of Saturday, July 13, a lightning storm began in the northwest corner of California, crossed the state line into Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon, and moved northeast toward Crater Lake sparking dozens of small fires in its wake. Several of these fires on the Siskiyou grew large and merged together, becoming the biggest wildfire in Oregon history – a mega-inferno that has consumed close to half a million acres of forest land, including nearly the entire 180,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and in late July caused the 17,000 residents of the Illinois Valley to be placed on a hair-raising 30-minute standby alert for evacuation. Some fire suppression activities are still being carried out as the fire continues to burn in spots, and complete control is not expected until early November.

But this need never have happened.

The storm that began that Saturday was a typical “dry” storm with lots of lightning but no rain. Storms like this are common in summer in Western states, and not surprisingly lightning is the most common cause of forest and brush fires. These lightning-caused fires often burn themselves out, or if attacked promptly can be readily extinguished, sometimes by just one or two persons.

But the Siskiyou Forest fires did not burn out and were not promptly attacked. When they finally were, those fighting them were hampered by a web of rules and regulations that do nothing to hasten fire suppression, but have been imposed to satisfy demands by environmentalists.

For example, a July 18 directive from the Galice Ranger District advised firefighters to pay special attention to “known nest sites of any listed species” (the northern spotted owl and the peregrine falcon). These sites were to be protected from high-intensity fire “wherever possible,” yet at the same time “the area within three air miles of a nest site (distance based on topographic boundaries) should be protected from disturbance during fire suppression activities, whenever possible.”

Compliance with this directive required that aircraft flights less than 1,500 feet above the ground and the use of explosives within three air miles of a known nest site to be kept to a minimum. Moreover, “Camp and staging areas set up before 15 August should be located outside of the peregrine falcon primary and secondary nest protection zones.”

Public and official attention has focused on the lack of logging over the past 10 to 20 years as the reason for the size and ferocity of the mammoth fires that in recent years have devastated Western forests and communities – fires like the Cerro Grande and Scott Abel Canyon fires in New Mexico in 2000, the Hayman and Durango fires in Colorado and the Rodeo fire in Arizona this summer.

There’s no question that lack of logging has been a major factor. For decades, environmentalists have worked diligently to close government-owned lands to the public – one of their most successful tactics being to lodge legal challenges against cutting timber, mining minerals or grazing cattle. Southwest Oregon and northern California were early targets and a hotbed of environmental activism from the 1970s to the present day.

Barrage of lawsuits

In 1989, a coalition of green groups convinced a federal administrative law judge that cutting down trees threatened the existence of the northern spotted owl by destroying nesting habitat. The judge agreed that the U.S. Forest Service was violating the 1973 Endangered Species Act by allowing timber cutting to continue as it had. In response to the judge’s decision, the Forest Service sharply reduced the amount of lumber that could be harvested on its land. The logging industry that was the economic basis for hundreds of rural communities withered and died as one after another of the sawmills were forced to close.

Researcher and author Ron Arnold, in his 1999 book “Undue Influence,” reports that the spotted owl lawsuit alone resulted in the closure of 187 mills in Oregon, Washington and California and the loss of 22,654 jobs. A continuing barrage of lawsuits challenging the legality of the much smaller timber sales caused further mill closures and job losses. With no logging there was no need for sawmills.

And with no logging, the forests of the West became dense with millions of small saplings and underbrush. This new vegetation competed for ground water with the larger, older trees, weakening these and exacerbating drought conditions.

To meet the outcries of critics who demand some kind of thinning of the forests if only to control fires, environmentalists argue that the current epidemic of catastrophic fires is the result of decades of fire suppression that prevented the “natural” clearance of underbrush and an overabundance of young trees.

“It’s baloney,” Arnold told WorldNetDaily. “Logging cuts down the stuff that builds up in the forest, and it’s the lack of logging and the lack of budget for proper management and firefighting that has caused [the crisis]. When you stopped firefighting after people had been successfully logging and bringing back [forests], you created the perfect conditions for new fires. … It’s not that we’ve had a century of logging and fire suppression, it’s that we’ve had two decades of no logging.”

But environmentalists didn’t stop with the dismantling of the timber industry. Undaunted by criticism, they pressed for changes in Forest Service policies towards fire, claiming that fire was good for forests provided it is “natural” – meaning not caused by humans. The Forest Service has tacitly accepted this premise along with a goal that fire should be reintroduced as part of “ecosystem management.” Further changes were sought in the way fires are handled, and “let burn” policies are implemented in many instances.

It was adherence to these enviro-driven edicts on fire and firefighting, as much as the lack of logging and resulting fuel buildup, that allowed the small fires ignited July 13 to become the wildfire that has lasted nearly three months.

Fighting fires in a MIST

About 9 a.m July 13, a three-acre “person-caused” fire was reported on the Siskiyou National Forest. It was dubbed the Taylor fire after Taylor Creek where it was located. It was not a “natural” fire, and the Forest Service’s Bob Del Monte directed a task force based at an airport near Grants Pass to deal with it before it got any bigger. At 2 p.m., lookouts reported lightning strikes moving up the boundary of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. A little over an hour later, a fixed-wing aircraft spotted a small fire burning in the northern Kalmiopsis Wilderness at Carter Creek, south of the Illinois River. A second fire was reported half an hour later in the southern part of the forest close to the California-Oregon border and outside the wilderness.

Some three hours later, Del Monte requested that smokejumpers (parachutists) or rappellers be dispatched for both the Carter [Creek] fire and the southern Biscuit fire, so-named after nearby Biscuit Hill. He was told no smokejumpers would be available for at least 48 hours, and no one knew when there would be any rappellers.

When a fire burns in a wilderness, otherwise routine fire suppression activities are restricted, including the use of mechanized and motorized equipment. Chainsaws and bulldozers for cutting trees and moving earth to make fire lines require approval by the forest supervisor. If not granted, firefighting crews are limited to hand tools. Even with permission, dozer-line construction and vegetation clearing must be kept minimal. As there are no roads in a wilderness, only occasional narrow trails, motorized travel is difficult if not impossible and it too requires approval, as must the use of helicopters to transport crews and douse hot spots.

The term for these special rules and practices is MIST – Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics. The purpose is to limit the effects of firefighting activity on the land as much as possible, paying close attention to endangered and threatened species.

According to a chronology drafted by Forest Service personnel, acting forest supervisor Tom Reilly wasn’t contacted until noon the following day, Sunday, when several officials phoned to request approval of a Type 2 Team and verbal approval for the use of helicopters, chainsaws and portable pumps for use on the Carter fire.

Reilly gave the OK, and a helicopter owned by Grayback Forestry, a private firefighting company headquartered near Grants Pass, Ore., that contracts with the Forest Service, carried in two men to assess the Carter fire.

“The helicopter landed in the wilderness,” said Forest Service spokesperson Paul Galloway. “That’s why approval was needed for that to occur.”

For reasons that have not been fully explained, it was decided that Grayback firefighters would hike in seven miles over rough terrain, rather than be transported by helicopter. By mid-afternoon a 20-person crew was on its way and arrived at 9:17 p.m. Sunday. A second crew followed next day. Working together, the two crews contained the Carter fire by 1:25 p.m. Tuesday.

So far, so good. Or was it? Grayback firefighters were able to keep the fire at about 15 acres, but that achievement was not appreciated by all parties, in particular members of the Siskiyou Regional-Education Project (also called simply “the Siskiyou Project”), an environmental group headquartered in the tiny community of Takilma, near the Oregon-California border, but having a Cave Junction mailing address. According to a highly reliable source, one official of the Siskiyou Project repeatedly phoned the ranger district telling them not to fight the Carter fire.

SREP did not return WND’s phone calls, but the account isn’t all that surprising, nor would the incident be out of character. The Siskiyou Project (originally called Kalmiopsis Earth First!) is a participant in The Wildlands Project. It was a major instigator and promoter of the effort two years ago to persuade Clinton to create the Siskiyou Wild Rivers National Monument – a 1.2 million-acre monument covering most of the Siskiyou National Forest and all of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and extending into California. Due to serious community opposition the plan was defeated, at least for the time being.

The Craggy fire

Last year, the same group of enviro-activists who promoted the monument designation, complained loudly and bitterly about Forest Service handling of the Craggy fire (named for Craggy Creek). The Craggy fire, like the Carter fire, started on the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and because 2001 was a drought year, the Forest Service jumped on it before it had a chance to become a holocaust. It took some 300 firefighters ferried in by helicopter, but the Craggy fire was contained at 275 acres at a cost of $2.5 million. But rather than applaud the Forest Service for saving the Kalmiopsis, environmentalists griped that the bill came to $10,000 an acre.

“What’s troubling about the whole thing is, we’re getting all this rhetoric about re-establishing fire into the ecosystem,” said Steve Marsden, then-executive director of the Siskiyou Project. “If we can’t let this kind of fire burn, how can we talk about re-introducing fire into the natural landscape? This is an area where you would let that happen. It’s hard to see why there was an immediate suppression mode.”

The Grants Pass Daily Courier reported that the fire burned mostly “brushy, steep slopes that were burned in the 1987 Silver fire, and was nearly 20 miles from the nearest towns, Selma and Agness.” The Silver fire had burned over 100,000 acres.

Jack Williams, the Siskiyou forest supervisor at the time, defended his decision in a guest editorial for the Daily Courier. Williams, an environmentalist himself, was caught in a bind. He supported “wilderness values,” but realized there are limits.

“Because of extremely dry conditions and large volumes of down wood in the vicinity, our models predicted the Craggy fire had the ability to burn well beyond the wilderness borders if left unchecked,” Williams wrote. “The Craggy fire erupted in some very rugged terrain with brush and fallen trees so thick in some areas crews literally had to crawl through thickets to get to the fire. Because of our desire to have minimal human impact on the wilderness and because of concerns for firefighting safety, we employed a relatively small ground attack on the fire. Much of our firefighting effort, and a large majority of the cost, went toward aerial tankers and helicopters to help fight the blaze.”

Mike Wheelock, owner of Grayback Forestry, one of several companies participating in the Craggy fire action, seconded Williams’ remarks.

“There was underbrush and lots of fuels,” said Wheelock, recalling the Craggy fire. “You can’t let those burn. In mild seasons that are very wet you can do that, but last year was a severe drought year and the Forest Service knew that. What they did was very good.”

Yes, it cost money – a lot of money, he admitted. “But instead of $100 million, it cost only a couple of million, and it would have been the same thing this year.”

But that wasn’t in the cards.

While Grayback firefighters were bringing the Carter fire under control, aerial reconnaissance reported another fire on the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, this one near Florence Creek. Like last year’s Craggy fire, the Florence fire was on an area previously burned by the 1987 Silver fire. And like the Biscuit and Carter fires, it had been ignited by lightning Saturday, though the Forest Service claims it was not spotted until 1:45 p.m. July 15. It covered five to seven acres. Authorization was sought and granted for helicopter use, chainsaws, water pumps, retardant (which is dropped by air tankers) and the construction of helispots.

By 6:30 p.m. the Florence fire was 15 to 20 acres and moving fast. A crew began hiking in, arriving at midnight. The fire grew and by morning was 50 acres.

Admitting later that his decision was a “difficult” one, the incident commander in charge of initial attack decided not to engage the fire. In a written statement, he cited safety concerns and lack of personnel as the reason. But it’s likely that the controversy over the suppression of last year’s Craggy fire and the recent Carter fire influenced his decision, as well as the Forest Service’s overall handling of the Florence fire while it was on the Kalmiopsis.

Not until it had “slopped over” from the wilderness onto ordinary Forest Service land were those in charge of protecting public resources moved to take action.

‘Breeding grounds for forest fires’

Local resident Ron Smith, who heads the Illinois Valley chapter of People for the USA, a group fighting for public access to public lands, has monitored the Forest Service’s handling of the fires from the very beginning and is sharply critical of what he has observed and learned. Because general forest management in wilderness areas is by definition non-existent, these areas have become, in his view, “breeding grounds for forest fires.”

“When they first saw the fire it was six acres, but they did nothing until it got to be over 2,000 acres, and then only when it crossed Bald Mountain Road,” Smith reported. “This is their own words – they watched it burn to monitor it. When it crossed Bald Mountain Road, they suddenly had a 15-acre slop-over, and they fought that but screwed up. The 15-acre slop-over became a 60,000-acre slop-over, because they didn’t fight it in the wilderness area.”

Yet, even though the Forest Service decided to tackle the “slop-over,” the fire wasn’t attacked directly. The standard firefighting practice today is to create a “fireline” – a cleared area around the fire and some distance from it. This may require some tree cutting. When wind and weather conditions permit, small fires are set inside this line that will (if all goes well) burn towards the main fire, depriving it of fuel.

Firefighters on the Carter fire created their fire line with hand tools, but bulldozers were used to contain the burgeoning Florence fire. Yet even outside the wilderness, eco-considerations trumped prompt fire suppression and mandated numerous extraordinary measures. Of special concern was the possible spread of a fungus that causes a plant disease called Port Orford cedar root rot. The Forest Service “Incident Action Plan” for July 28 (cover page, page 1, page 2, page 3), a daily briefing paper for fire crew commanders and not readily available to the public, details measures to be taken about this threat and others.

  • “All machinery and equipment working and traveling on roads shall be pressure washed to remove all mud, dirt, and plant parts before going to the fireline. Equipment inspection will occur at a designated location before traveling to the fireline. Pay particular attention to washing the vehicle undercarriage.” [emphasis in the original]

  • “Avoid use of water (dust abatement, compaction, excavation, seeking, fire suppression, etc.) with potentially infected water or treat water with Clorox that’s EPA registered for Port Orford Cedar root disease control. Application rate of Clorox is one gallon of Clorox to 1,000 gallons of water.”

  • “Minimizing the spread of noxious weeds can be achieved by washing potentially infected vehicles and cleaning personal clothing before vehicle and personnel are deployed to fire area.”

Other concerns addressed in the Incident Action Plan: Impacts to species federally listed as endangered or threatened through the Endangered Species Act are to be minimized. To minimize impacts to the endangered Arabis macdonaldiana, a small rock cress, “ground disturbing activities near populations of this species” are to be avoided. In deference to the threatened coho salmon, which doesn’t show up in the local rivers, application of chemical agents within 100 feet of streams is to be avoided, so too, the felling of trees within 150 feet of streams and construction within 100 feet of streams.

Mike Wheelock shared his views on such measures with WND. While he appreciates the purpose and rationale behind them, he noted that implementation can be time-consuming and in the end may not be all that effective.

“There are just so many different things that you have to do,” said Wheelock. “You have to wash your vehicle before you go out on the fire. It’s because of cedar root rot, and I understand that, but sometimes that can take two hours. And you can’t dig a fireline within a hundred feet of a creek, so then the fire comes up and burns up the creek.”

“It’s not just us – we’re all hamstrung in fighting fires,” he said. “All the agencies and companies are under the same regulations, and there are a lot of restrictions that we didn’t have in the early ’80s and mid-’80s to suppress fires. Some of the restrictions are good for the land, but when you know a fire is going to burn up a lot of ground and something like cutting a fireline with a cat [Caterpillar tractor] would stop it, and they can’t bring a cat in there, that kind of hurts things.”

Biscuit fire blow-up

On July 26, the Florence fire, which by then had grown to 15,300 acres, suddenly exploded as a 25,000-foot high smoke plume collapsed under its own weight, pushing the fire through dense forest at 2 miles an hour. Flames soared 150 feet into the air. This became a 30-mile-long wall of fire marching on the Illinois Valley. By July 30 it had grown to 71,000 acres and had merged with the Biscuit fire.

South of the Florence fire, the Biscuit fire that had been growing steadily since its ignition by the July 13 lightning storm, also suddenly expanded, rolling across the state line into Six Rivers National Forest. The containment line had to be extended.

What made this particularly galling was that on July 14, the California Department of Forestry had offered to try and put out the fire. When the lightning fires started, CDF worked with the Six Rivers National Forest and by early afternoon Sunday the spot fires on the California side of the line had been snuffed out. The helicopter pilot had noticed a small fire near the state line and offered to go into Oregon and put it out.

Siskiyou National Forest people turned down the offer. The reason given is that the CDF offered only to work for one fuel rotation, which translates into just a few helibuckets of water, and that there was no staff on the ground to fight the fire, and that by the time the offer was made the fire was 100 acres.

Several matters are currently being disputed. Chuck Blackburn, a supervisor for Del Norte County in northwest California, which has part of Six Rivers National Forest within its boundaries, has been actively trying to piece together what happened, talking to people who claim that they could have put the fire out at its beginning. “From the information I’ve received from the California Department of Forestry and from the people involved, they felt they could put it out, but were not given permission to do so by the Oregon Region 6 Forest Service,” Blackburn said. “They were turned down. They were not given permission to go across and attack that fire.”

Contacted for comment, Paul Galloway with the Siskiyou National Forest acknowledged the offer for assistance had been made and rejected, but added that a factor in that decision was that the Forest Service had no one in the forest to manage and fight the fire because the roads in had been allowed to grow over.

“They actually spent a number of days just trying to clear the road to get somebody up in there,” Galloway explained. This was a section of forest where the road had been allowed to grow over. Two dozers were assigned to open and improve the roads back to the Biscuit fires, but Galloway did not know how many days it took.

The area where the road had been allowed to grow over was not an officially designated roadless area, but a part of the forest that the Siskiyou Project folks had wanted to become part of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. When that failed, they pushed for designation as a roadless area. That effort, too, was unsuccessful.

Yet, those in charge of the Siskiyou National Forest agreed in principle with the roadless concept, and allowed the road to grow over creating a de facto roadless or wilderness area. Big mistake. When the fire came, they had to spend precious time and money opening a road that was not supposed to be closed in the first place.

‘They just let them burn!’

People in southern Oregon are in general horrified at the loss of the forest and many are outraged at Forest Service management of the fire that caused the devastation.

“It’s pretty much gone,” says Smith sadly, reviewing reports on the Kalmiopsis. “By the time this fire is over it will be completely gone. A lot of the plants will grow back, but they’ve lost some really beautiful old forest. There were groves of sugar pines that were 300 and 400 years old, six feet in diameter. It will take centuries for them to grow back, but they just let them burn!”

“This fire is going to burn until the rains come in October,” Smith predicted. “All they’re doing is setting a fire ring around it.”

You’d think environmentalists would be devastated by the burning of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which for them is a sacred place. This is where the Siskiyou Project people held ceremonies – where they had a prayer circle, a sundance circle and worship circles. But you’d be wrong.

Fire ‘not a catastrophe’

Lou Gold, a leader in the Siskiyou Project from its Earth First! beginnings and a major promoter of further expansion of the wilderness area, likened the current conflagration to the 1987 Silver fire. Gold recently told the Oregonian newspaper that he was camping on Bald Mountain the night the Silver fire began and actually saw it start. He said he had spent more than 1,000 nights camping in the forest since then, watching the land recover. Madrone, tanoak and bear grass shoots were visible within weeks of the burn, and spring brought “abundant wildflowers.”

“The basic impression I had was, this was not a catastrophe, but it was a phase in a cycle of death and rebirth,” Gold told the Oregonian.

Gold isn’t alone. The Forest Service shares the view that because trees and other plants will grow back eventually, fire is therefore good and its damage is nothing to be upset about.

Showing just how far the Forest Service has adopted this green ideology, a statement right on the Forest Service’s own webpage for the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, in a section headed “Current Trail and Trailhead Information,” says it all:

    Fire is a natural process (this start was from lightning) in Wilderness and is an agent of change. While it could have some negative effects, especially if the fire burned extremely hot in areas of excessive fuel build-ups, the excessive fuel situation was most likely an “unnatural” condition brought about from years of suppression, which prevented the smaller, high frequency, low intensity fires from occurring.

    Yes, the landscape will look very different in many places. Some of our favorite areas will be changed and our concept of natural beauty will be challenged to look beyond any one static condition and to find beauty in the process of natural change. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness we all have come to love and cherish was historically formed by many factors … including fire!

    A Quote: “The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is beyond reach; it is an expression of loyalty to the earth … the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we need – if only we had the eyes to see.” –Edward Abbey

    Happy Trails!

Editor’s note: The preceding report by Sarah Foster is a small taste of the current edition of WND’s acclaimed Whistleblower magazine. Titled “GREEN WITH ENVY: Exposing radical environmentalists’ assault on Western civilization” – the October 2002 issue is a mind-boggling expose of the radical environmentalist movement. It documents how environmentalist-inspired laws outlawing asbestos caused the early collapse of the World Trade Center, killing thousands; how environmentalist policy elitists want to lock up as much as one-half of the United States as “Wilderness,” basically off-limits to humans; why the save-the-rainforest movement is a fraud; and much, much more. Subscribe to Whistleblower.

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