23 Sep 2008, 12:01pm
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

Firefighters Engage Middlefork Fire

After five weeks of Let It Burn firefighters have finally engaged the Middlefork Fire in SW Oregon. Last night’s 209 report indicated that direct fireline construction has been implemented in Crater Lake National Park to stop the northerly spread of the fire. Also, direct checking action by two 20-man crews has begun on the Fremont-Winema National Forest on the east side of the Cascades.

The Middlefork Fire [here] was ignited by lightning on August 16th on the Rogue River-Siskiyou NF near the Middle Fork of the Rogue River. To date the fire has consumed 18,238 acres including the entire Middle Fork watershed. The fire has spread 8 miles east across the Pacific Crest Trail and is within 3 miles of the upper Klamath Valley. It has also spread 12 miles to the north into Crater Lake NP to the north side of Union Peak.

To date the Middlefork Fire has cost $11,380,951 in “suppression” expenses although little or no suppression has taken place.

Click map for larger image [1.9 MB].

From Aug 16 to Sept. 10 a skeleton crew from the RR-SNF watched the fire burn. By then it had grown to 3,500 acres and was pluming (fire storm vortex) and spotting in every compass direction. The RR-SNF had spent $4.5 million by that date. On Sept. 11 the Blue Mountain Type 2 IMT (Batten) was assigned and they brought in over 350 firefighting personnel.

Still, no direct suppression was employed. Backburns were attempted from contingency lines miles away from the actual fire. On Sept. 13 over 500 personnel were engaged in not fighting the fire, which had grown to 6,000 acres. The new Region 6 Regional Forester Mary Wagner sent a Review Team to evaluate fire planning.

But no substantive change in firefighting tactics resulted. Between Sept 13 and Sept 18 the Middlefork Fire blew up and tripled in size.

Old-growth forest has been incinerated in repeated firestorm canopy fire events that have formed massive smoke plumes. Heritage sites of human occupation and use dating back thousands of years have been obliterated. The soil has been roasted and sucked away in the vortex fire plumes. Spotted owl nesting stands have been utterly destroyed. Recreational use has been curtailed, the trails and campgrounds closed, and the scenery converted to charred snags punctuated by ashy dust storms. The Rogue River has been polluted with ash and soot and will run chocolate with eroded sediment next year.

Today over 1,000 personnel are on the fire. The Blue Mountain Type 2 team is being replaced by the PNW Team 3 Type 1 IMT (Pendleton). And for the first time, direct attack is being utilized.

The direct attack is taking place in a National Park and a designated Wilderness Area on the north and east flanks of the fire. This is unusual because the NPS generally eschews direct attack. For instance, two fires are burning freely today in Kings Canyon NP. Tehipite Fire [here] began July 19 and is still burning two months later. It has plumed and grown to over 10,000 acres. While not an official WFU, like the Middlefork Fire it has been monitored, not fought. The Hidden Fire [here] began Sept 10 and is being managed using the Wildland Fire Decision Support System. That also means no direct attack and massive backburns on one side of the fire. The Hidden Fire has grown to over 1,500 acres and is being Let Burn on the KCNP side.

The Middlefork Fire was predicted, indeed threatened by the RR-SNF. In March 2008 Scott Conroy, Forest Supervisor of the RR-SNF issued a Notice indicating that he intended to alter the RR-SNF Fire Plan by incorporating WFU and AMR (Appropriate Management Response). The Notice was supposed to be a first step in preparation of an EA (Environmental Assessment) as required under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act). W.I.S.E. submitted comments as requested and authorized under NEPA process guidelines [here].

The RR-SNF never responded. They evidently bagged the NEPA process and adopted WFU and AMR anyway. Or perhaps not; there is no way of knowing. In June W.I.S.E. requested the RR-SNF Fire Plan under the Freedom of Information Act. The RR-SNF refused to comply and has not sent their Fire Plan to us as required by federal law.

These repeated violations of law culminated in the Middlefork Fire. W.I.S.E. warned every county commission in SW Oregon that the RR-SNF intended to do Let It Burn and that another Biscuit Fire was in the offing. Those county commissions did not respond. Maybe they thought it was a joke.

But it was not a joke. The RR-SNF had every intention of promulgating another megafire and indeed have done so.

The weather is expected to dry with strong winds arising by the end of the week. Hopefully direct attack can halt the progress of the Middlefork Fire before then. If not, expect another 10,000 acres of priceless heritage forests to be incinerated.



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